Lives of the fellows

Charles Felix (Sir) Harris

b.30 March 1900 d.10 March 1974
Kt(1968) MRCS LRCP(1923) MB BS Lond(1923) MD(1925) MRCP(1925) FRCP(1932) Hon LLD(1952) Hon FRCS(1966)

Charles Harris, the son of G. Felix Harris, was born in New York, where his father was in shipping. He spent his childhood in Australia and returned to school in England in 1914. After four years at Epsom College, he entered St Bartholomew’s Hospital where he qualified MB BS in 1923, and also took the Conjoint that same year. He was house physician to Dr (later Sir Percival) Horton Smith Hartley from 1923-1924, and was awarded the Lawrence Research Scholarship and Gold Medal in 1925. In the same year he acquired his MD London and his MRCP. Apart from six months as a house physician at the Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street, and a period in the paediatric department of Johns Hopkins University Medical School, Baltimore, with a Rockefeller Fellowship, his association with Bart’s remained unbroken. He went back as chief assistant to the children’s department and was made assistant physician in 1928. The department, which had outpatients but no beds, was in charge of general physicians. In 1929 Charles Harris became the first physician in charge of a separate children’s department with its own ward accommodation. This was the end of a prolonged struggle to obtain the recognition of a separate department for diseases of children and was a personal triumph.

In 1936 he was appointed warden of the medical college, and in 1939, at the outbreak of the second world war, he took over the task of medical officer in charge of St Bartholomew’s Hospital under the Emergency Medical Service. This gave him the opportunity to show his outstanding administrative capacity. He organized the hospital for its wartime role, maintained the college activities and education, and continued his own teaching in paediatrics. In 1945 he became Dean of the medical college.

Charles Harris had a close association with the University of London. He became a member of Senate in 1950, and of its Court in 1951. He was Dean of the Medical Faculty from 1952-1956. Vice-Chancellor from 1958-1961 and chairman of Convocation from then on. During many busy years he found time to help the governing bodies of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the School of Pharmacy. The part he played in the establishment of the Institute of Basic Medical Sciences at the Royal College of Surgeons was recognized by the award of the honorary FRCS. He was knighted in 1968, and his services to the University were crowned by the conferment of an honorary LLD.

From 1934-1938 he was joint editor of Archives of Disease in Childhood. He was president of the British Paediatric Association in 1962. He was elected a Fellow of the College in 1932.

As a chairman he was admirable and always studied the agenda carefully beforehand. He had the happy knack of steering the discussion into a profitable course and keeping it there. Since his grasp of the situation and his judgement were based on careful study of the facts he could be a formidable opponent as well as a remarkable advocate. Although he affected to dislike committees it could have been no accident that the tasks he undertook made him a member of so many. For him a committee was less a forum for discussion than an instrument for furthering the policies he had already determined to pursue; he usually had the advantage of being several jumps ahead. He could infuriate colleagues by asking awkward questions on matters which others were prepared, and anxious, to sweep under the carpet but which he, with his absolute integrity, thought must be considered. Charles probably derived a little secret enjoyment from these skirmishes, although it sometimes took great courage and disagreements were inevitable. However, they were not taken outside the committee room and in defeat the jocular grumble, the tilt of the head and the disarming smile would rapidly dispel any rancour.

Charles was not an easy person to get to know intimately. He was not an exponent of the ‘bedside manner’ nor of charismatic charm. He was shy and rather gruff, with a somewhat abrupt manner and a curious brand of humour all his own. But beneath this somewhat uncompromising exterior there was a kind, gentle and friendly human being full of insight and understanding. These qualities were well demonstrated in his management of children and their parents. When seemingly unobserved, his affection for and enjoyment of children was obvious. He knew many people but it was the privilege of the few to know the real Charles Harris.

In 1929 he married Edith Nadejda Goldsmith who was a constant source of support and encouragement to him throughout his career. He faced his final illness with the reserve and fortitude with which he had faced other problems in his life, and met his final defeat with courage and dignity. He was a truly outstanding servant to St Bartholomew’s Hospital and its College, and to the University.

Sir Gordon Wolstenholme
V Luniewska

[Brit.med.J., 1974, 1, 645; Lancet, 1974, 1, 518; Times, 15 & 19 Mar, 1974]

(Volume VI, page 224)

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