Lives of the fellows

Charles Victor Harrison

b.21 January 1907 d.24 October 1996
BSc MB BCh Wales(1929) MB BS Lond(1929) MD Lond(1938) FRCPath(1963) FRCP(1967) Hon DSc Wales(1972)

Vic Harrison was a distinguished pathologist of the old school who was responsible as professor of morbid anatomy at the Postgraduate Medical School, Hammersmith Hospital, for the high standard of the department’s histopathology reporting and postgraduate training.

He was born in Newport, Gwent, where his father had a dental practice. He went to Dean Close School, Cheltenham, and studied medicine at University College, Cardiff, and University College Hospital, London, qualifying in 1929. He was demonstrator in pathology at the Welsh National School of Medicine, Cardiff, from 1930 until 1935 when he was appointed assistant pathologist at the British Postgraduate Medical School, Hammersmith Hospital. At the time he qualified post-mortem examinations played a much greater part in the practice and teaching of pathology than nowadays. Endoscopic, renal and hepatic biopsies only became available for histopathology many years later. There were no comparable postgraduate textbooks of surgical, medical or gynaecological histopathology as today. The trainee pathologist had to learn by experience, consultation with his seniors and assiduous study of current and archival material. Vic developed into a first rate diagnostic histopathologist and teacher. In 1939 he moved to Liverpool as senior lecturer in pathology where he was extremely busy during the war, returning to the Postgraduate Medical School as reader in 1946.

He was devoted to the department at the Postgraduate Medical School, its administration and reputation. He was a very careful pathologist, avoiding short cuts, a clear teacher and enthusiastic collaborator with clinical workers, including research on dust diseases of the lung and pulmonary vascular diseases. His own major interests were diseases of lymph-nodes, in particular Hodgkin’s disease and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and diseases of blood vessels. He was conservative in technique, relying on a few favourite staining methods. He was suspicious of advances that did not, in his opinion, directly help diagnosis under the microscope. Thus he saw little practical use for histochemistry but did appreciate the cryostat introduced into the lab by Pearse for the preparation of frozen sections of fresh unfixed tissues. Though his title was reader, in practice he was pretty well in charge of the department and was appointed professor of morbid anatomy in 1956. He was a painstaking administrator, cajoling his staff to write up their post-mortem histologies in good time and index the cases, save material for the numerous clinico-pathological conferences, select slides for the Monday ‘black box’ diagnosis discussion meetings and take an active part in the teaching. He himself took a very active personal part in the histopathology reporting, carrying out post-mortem examinations and demonstrations and clinico-pathological conferences. Each year the pathology department was responsible for the twenty or so postgraduate students, the majority from the British Commonwealth, who attended the annual concentrated diploma in clinical pathology course. He organized the morbid anatomy portion of the course and made a point of getting to know the students individually and helping them in the practical classes. He was similarly conscientious with the trainee pathologists who usually came for about one year from other pathology institutions. In addition to his own published papers on diseases of the lymph-nodes and blood vessels and those in which he joined his clinical colleagues dealing with cardiac and pulmonary research, he succeeded Geoffrey Hadfleld [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.214] as editor of Recent advances in pathology, editing the seventh edition, (London, J & A Churchill, 1960), the eighth (London, J & A Churchill, 1966) and the ninth, with K Weinbren (Edinburgh, Churchill Livingstone, 1975).

He was small in stature, slim and physically very active, always running rather than walking up and down stairs. It was advisable not to stand too close to the table where he was doing a post-mortem examination. He was an enthusiastic pathologist and tended to deliberate hyperbole in demonstrating findings. For example he might describe a small secondary cancer as "a wee tiny almost invisible white metastasis". When one went to him for an opinion on a problem slide, he would first scan it with a lens, then with the microscope, give his opinion of the diagnosis or differential diagnosis and explain exactly which factors of pattern and staining favoured the diagnosis. He would then take out from his own slide collection one or more examples of a similar lesion, plus a card with references to the literature.

Vic and Olga (they were married in 1937) were hospitable and generous hosts, frequently inviting colleagues, visitors from abroad, members of the department and trainees to a warm reception at their house in Ealing. After retirement from the Royal Postgraduate Medical School he went to Nigeria for three years as professor of pathology in the new University of life. There he successfully set up an active department of morbid anatomy and trained a new generation of students and histology technicians. On returning to England they moved to Beaconsfield, not far from other retired colleagues of the Royal Postgraduate Medical School. In his retirement he enjoyed gardening, carpentry and small boat sailing on the Thames. Sadly, Olga died one year before him. There are many established and retired pathologists in various parts of the world who will remember Vic Harrison with affection and regard.

I Doniach

[The Times, 21 Apr 1996]

(Volume X, page 202)

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