Lives of the fellows

John Henry (Sir) Biggart

b.11 November 1905 d.21 May 1979
KBE(1967) CBE(1948) MB BCh BAO Belf(1928) MD(1931) DSc(1937) MRCP(1952) FRCP(1957) FRCPath(1964) M Hon MD Dublin(1957) Hon FRCGP(1971) Hon LLD Belf(1971) Hon DSc NUI(1973)

John Henry was born in Templepatrick, Co. Antrim, the elder son of John Henry Biggart, the headmaster of the local national school, in which his mother was also a teacher. From both parents he inherited a great love of learning, and during his school days at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution he was an outstanding student, excellent both in the classics and the sciences. His final choice of a career must have been a difficult one, but he was possessed of great humanity and compassion and no doubt these were the qualities which directed him towards the study of medicine. However, his love of the classics and of English literature remained with him and gave him great pleasure in his moments of leisure in an otherwise extraordinarily busy life.

He entered Queen’s Medical School in 1923, with an exhibition and the Sullivan scholarship. He had a brilliant undergraduate career, winning most of the prizes, medals and scholarships. He also participated in all student activities, including sport, being a keen rugby enthusiast, and eventually became president of the Students’ Union. After graduating with honours and completing his houseman’s year in the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast, his career in pathology began. He was appointed assistant lecturer in 1929 in the department of pathology, Queen’s University, under A Murray Drennan, and in 1931 his thesis on the eosinophil cell earned him the degree of MD with gold medal. Then followed the award of a Commonwealth Fund fellowship and two years of postgraduate study in the Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore, where his interest in neuropathology developed.

On his return from America he was appointed to a lectureship in neuropathology in Edinburgh, under his former chief, Professor Drennan. At this time neuropathology as a discipline had made little progress from the beginning of the century, and John Henry, as he was known to all, applied himself to its study, having access to a wealth of material as research pathologist to the Scottish Asylums’ Board. One of his main interests was the hypothalamus and in particular diabetes insipidus, and he made observations at that time which were often speculative, but which have since been confirmed with the more advanced techniques now available. He kept in close touch with general pathology in the University and Royal Infirmary, and indeed always regarded himself as primarily concerned with general pathology, but with a special interest in neuropathology. He was most anxious that the one should not be studied in isolation from the other.

He developed many new histopathological techniques, which still remain in use in the study of cell morphology in the brain. At this stage his main achievement was the publication of his book, Pathology of the Nervous System, which he modestly described as a student’s introduction to the subject, but which has long been valued by neurologists, neuropathologists and pathologists, not only in Britain but throughout the world.

In 1937, at the early age of 31, he was appointed professor of pathology in his old medical school, Queen’s University, little thinking that he would become one of its longest serving and most distinguished members of staff. As a teacher he was without equal, to his students his lectures were memorable occasions; pathology became a living subject, always relating disease to the sick patient, to the disturbance of function and to the interpretation of clinical findings. John Henry firmly believed that pathology was the basic clinical science and constituted the true and fundamental approach to clinical medicine. As taught by him it certainly fulfilled this function.

He became a father figure to his students, and his birthday was celebrated by them annually with a revue which, though often bawdy, was always humorous, and culminated in a short address from him delivered in biblical or Oslerian style. His students were spellbound as he expounded on his favourite themes, one of which was to impress on them the privilege of their vocation as undergraduates in medicine, the supreme importance of a sympathetic doctor-patient relationship, and the necessity of cultivating not only the science but also the art of medicine.

As a young professor, it soon became evident to the university authorities and to those responsible for the development of the health services in Northern Ireland that not only was John Henry a brilliant pathologist, teacher and research worker, but he was a man of vision, with a unique gift for administration coupled with sound judgement and creative drive. His services were sought by all university and public bodies and it was not long before he became the dominant figure in every aspect of medicine in Ulster.

He was appointed dean of the Faculty of Medicine, a post he held from 1943 to 1971. He was responsible for the development of the blood transfusion service, and became its regional director during the war. He played an important role in the evolution of the health service and devised a scheme whereby university medical staff could be employed under a joint appointment system. He was a member of the General Medical Council for 28 years, chairman of the Standing Medical Advisory Committee to the Ministry of Health, Northern Ireland, for six years, chairman of the Northern Ireland Council for Postgraduate Medical Education for eight years, and a member of the Cameron Commission which investigated the causes of political unrest in Northern Ireland. For many years he served on the Senate of the University and finally became pro-chancellor, a post he held till his death in May 1979.

He was the recipient of many honours, none of which he consciously sought. He was awarded the CBE in 1948, the KBE in 1967, and several honorary degrees and honorary fellowships from his own and other universities and colleges.

His work on behalf of various charitable organizations was unremitting, and, in different capacities, he was associated with the Homes for the Blind, the Marie Curie Beaconfield Home, the Mental Health Association, the British Empire Cancer Campaign, the Muscular Dystrophy Association and the Multiple Sclerosis Society.

To list Sir John’s activities gives only an impression of his enormous capacity for hard work. The value of his contribution to the advancement of medicine in the Province is inestimable. Yet, despite his innumerable commitments, those of us who worked in his department realized that he remained a pathologist at heart, keeping abreast of the literature, maintaining his interest in research, never losing contact with his students, fulfilling the entire lecture programme in pathology, available to his staff on all occasions, and rarely delegating his duties as head of the Institute of Pathology.

All who have written of him since his death have stressed his great love for his profession, his humanity and kindness, his courage and wisdom - a man without equal and whom generations of students will never forget.

As the vice-chancellor declared in his funeral oration, Queen’s had lost the greatest contemporary Queensman of them all, Northern Ireland had lost a great citizen, Ulster had lost its greatest doctor and medical educationalist, the Kingdom had lost the doyen of its pathologists, and Ireland had lost a great son.

He died as he would have wished, still in active service at the age of 73, whilst attending a meeting of the General Medical Council in London. He was survived by his wife Isobel, his son Denis, also a pathologist, and daughter Rosemary, a general practitioner in Scotland.

E Florence McKeown

[Brit.med.J., 1969, 1, 1718; Lancet, 1979, 2, 53]

(Volume VII, page 42)

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