Lives of the fellows

Wilfred John Harris

b.2 December 1869 d.28 February 1960
BA Cantab(1891) MB ChB Cantab(1894) MD Cantab(1898) MRCP(1896) FRCP(1905)

Wilfred Harris was the third son of William Henry Harris, M.D., I.M.S., of Viveham, North Devon, a veteran of the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny who, at the time of his son’s birth, was professor of midwifery and diseases of women and children in Madras, and in 1881 retired with the rank of deputy surgeon-general.

Harris was educated at Sherborne School, University College School, London, and Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, gaining a second class in the natural sciences tripos in 1891 and in that same year winning a university scholarship to St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School, Paddington, where he gained prizes in clinical medicine and ophthalmology and qualified M.B., Ch.B. (Cantab.) in 1894. After being house physician at St. Mary’s Hospital (1895) and taking the Membership of the College he spent two years as resident at the National Hospital, Queen Square, at a time when Hughlings Jackson and Sir William Gowers were still active.

Returning to St. Mary’s he was appointed medical tutor in 1897, medical registrar in 1901, and casualty physician in 1904. In 1902 he was elected to the staff of the Maida Vale Hospital for Epilepsy and Paralysis (as it was then called), and in 1905 became assistant physician and physician to out-patients at St. Mary’s Hospital. From 1899 onwards he had been electro-therapeutics officer at St. Mary’s, and when in 1907 his department was changed into a clinic for nervous diseases Harris took charge, thus forming the first department of neurology in any undergraduate teaching hospital.

He became physician-in-charge of wards in 1920, and in 1919 was appointed director of the newly formed ‘medical unit’ at St. Mary’s on a part-time basis. During the War of 1914-18 he served as a captain in the Territorial Army Medical Service on the staff of the 3rd London General Hospital, Wandsworth Common. He retired from the active staff of St. Mary’s Hospital in 1935, but again took charge of the neurological department while his successor was on active service with the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. He did not retire from the Maida Vale Hospital till 1945. He was also consulting physician to the London Chest Hospital.

In 1917 Harris delivered two Arris and Gale lectures at the Royal College of Surgeons of England on the morphology of the brachial plexus in its relation to surgery. He was president of the section of neurology of the Royal Society of Medicine in 1921, and from 1933 to 1936 was first president of the Association of British Neurologists. He was also president of the British branch of the International League against Epilepsy, and examiner in medicine at the College (1910-14), at the University of Durham (1912), and at the University of Cambridge (1913).

Wilfred Harris was an outstanding neurologist in the direct line of Hughlings Jackson and William Gowers. At an early stage of his career he became interested in the neuralgias and particularly in the treatment of trigeminal neuralgia. After numerous experiments on the cadaver he perfected a technique for injecting alcohol into the Gasserian ganglion through the foramen ovale. For fifty years he continued to apply this treatment in clinical practice and achieved remarkable results. At Queen Square in 1935 before a crowded international audience of neurologists he achieved the remarkable feat of successfully injecting within the ganglion the fibres of the second and third divisions of the fifth nerve.

When eighty years of age he flew to South Africa to perform the injection treatment on some patients. His experience in this and other nerve conditions was set forth in three books, Nerve injuries and shock (1915), Neuritis and neuralgia (1926), and The Facial neuralgias (1937). He made a special study of the brachial plexus to demonstrate the pre- and post-fixed types of plexus, and after his retirement extended this research; in 1939 he published The Morphology of the brachial plexus, with beautiful illustrations, based upon dissections of all types from fishes to man.

Harris was above average height, stoutly built but erect in carriage. In youth he played Rugby football and to the end of his life liked to watch the inter-hospital cup-ties at Richmond. His oval, dark and rather handsome face was usually impassive, but lighted up eagerly when explaining an interesting point. His temperament was rather impatient, a fact which sometimes acted to his detriment, but in later life the more genial side of his character became more evident. He was an excellent teacher, demonstrator and lecturer. As a clinician he was careful, precise, never jumped to conclusions, and always weighed accurately the signs and symptoms.

For many years he was an expert collector of old silver spoons, and at a dinner given by his fellow-neurologists to celebrate his eightieth birthday he was, to his great joy, presented with two very rare specimens. His collection, when sold in 1957, fetched more than fourteen thousand pounds.

In 1906 Harris married Mabel, eldest daughter of Rear-Admiral Richard Mayne, C.B., M.P., and had two sons and one daughter. His widow died in 1962.

Richard R trail

[Brit.med.J., 1960, 1, 732-3 (p), 974; Lancet, 1960, 1, 553-4 (p); Times, 29 Feb. 1960.]

(Volume V, page 175)

<< Back to List