Lives of the fellows

John Thomas Harries

b.24 June 1934 d.27 March 1983
MB BS Lond(1958) MRCP(1965) MD(1971) MSc Bioch(1972) FRCP(1978)

John Harries was born in Llanelli, Wales, the son of William John, a farmer, and was buried 48 years later in the cemetery overlooking the farm where he had spent his childhood. He was deeply proud of his Welsh ancestry and spoke Welsh fluently. He gained a choral scholarship to the Cathedral Choir School in Hereford and though over the years his singing voice lost is melodious quality, he always enjoyed singing, particularly after a good dinner with his friends. He was deeply moved by choral singing, particularly of a Welsh choir.

As a medical student at King’s College Hospital Medical School he was better known for his colourful pranks than for his academic achievements. During a period in the Navy on short service commission he visited countries in the Middle and Near East, and gained a deep understanding of, and affection for, Arab cultures. This was to help him greatly during the last few years of his life when he forged links between the Ministry of Health in Oman and the Institute of Child Health and Great Ormond Street Hospital, with the aim of strengthening the health services for children in that country.

John Harries was a great sportsman. He represented Llanelli and Wasps rugby football clubs and the Navy at rugby and cricket. His enthusiasm for rugby continued and his association with Llanelli and Wasps remained close. He knew what loyalty to a team means, and later in his professional and academic life he felt the same unwavering loyalty to the institutions he served, and to the team of which he was to become a leader. Young research fellows working with him knew that he was always ready to spend time with them, discussing their work. They learnt more from him than just science, becoming life-long friends.

His interest in paediatric gastroenterology was kindled during his early appointments at Great Ormond Street, where he served as house physician to Sir Wilfred Sheldon (q.v.) in 1966. With the exception of a period spent as research fellow at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, in order to learn techniques used in the investigation of adults with gastrointestinal disorders, he worked at the Institute of Child Health for the rest of his life.

Though fascinated by the study of the physiology and pathology of the gastrointestinal tract in infancy and childhood, he was aware of the need to maintain close links with ‘adult’ colleagues. He became a member of the British Society of Gastroenterology and served on the editorial board of Gut. In his researches, John Harries contributed to many aspects of paediatric gastroenterology. He edited Essentials of Paediatric Gastroenterology and at the time of his death was preparing the second edition.

His greatest interest lay in the application of modern biochemical methods to the investigation of patients, and to the elucidation of problems in the physiology and pathology of gastrointestinal function. He recognized the questions which, with the use of sophisticated techniques, were ready for answers. If a particular technique was not available in his laboratory he or one of his colleagues would visit a laboratory at home or abroad to learn it. Thus sprang up an international network of friends engaged in gastrointestinal research.

Because he had so many friends abroad his membership of the European Society for Paediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition meant much to him, and during the last few years of his life he was a greatly valued member of the council of that Society. He was aware of the need for close cooperation with biochemists and for medical scientists working in paediatric gastroenterology to acquire more than superficial knowledge of biochemical principles and techniques.

In his own training he took an MSc in biochemistry, and encouraged his younger co-workers to do the same. His pride, when they succeeded in the examination, was great. If one wanted to single out a particular area of research where he excelled it would be the inborn errors of metabolism of intestinal absorption and secretion. He knew that detailed investigation of these rare conditions would throw new light on the physiology of the gut. He had the original mind that allowed him to make the very best use of the partnership of Great Ormond Street, with its unique clinical opportunities, and the research laboratories in the Institute of Child Health.

He edited a monograph in the series Clinics in Gastroenterology entitled ‘Familial Inherited Abnormalities’, a volume which serves as an apt memorial of his great contributions in this field. John did not find the proliferation of committees, so much part of today’s medical scene, to his liking and avoided them whenever possible. When he felt it necessary to attend, in order to persuade his colleagues of the need for a certain development, he was not at his best and would present a rather sullen mien, an unbending stance, and often an air of intense boredom. He preferred his research and clinical work and discussions with his friends in the local pub over a pint.

He was an individualist with strongly felt loyalties and profound sympathy for those in trouble, whether patients, their parents or friends, but one had to know John well to become fully aware of his deep compassion.

OH Wolff

[, 1983, 286, 1292 & 1452; Lancet, 1983, 1, 1116; Times, 16 Apr 1983]

(Volume VII, page 246)

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