Lives of the fellows

Charles Herbert (Sir) Stuart-Harris

b.12 July 1909 d.23 February 1996
Kt(1970) CBE(1961) MB BS Lond(1931) MD(1934) MRCP(1934) FRCP(1944)

Sir Charles Stuart-Harris was the first full time professor of medicine at Sheffield University and an international authority on influenza and other virus infections. He was born the son of a general practitioner in Birmingham who died suddenly of pneumonia in 1913. Charles won a scholarship to King Edwards School in Birmingham and then went on to St Bartholmew’s Hospital, also as a scholar. As a student he contracted typhoid from a patient and was desperately ill, nevertheless he went on to graduate in 1931.

He was house physician to Sir Francis Fraser [Munk’s Roll, Vol.V, p.141], professor of medicine at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, and then demonstrator of pathology in 1933 (the year when the discovery of the human influenza virus was announced at the National Institute for Medical Research). He then went to be a first assistant in the department of medicine at the British Postgraduate Medical School, established at Hammersmith Hospital in 1935, when Francis Fraser was the foundation professor of medicine. There he was part of a dynamic group of young scientists engaged in research on various aspects of disease. He then moved to join the team headed by Sir Christopher Andrewes [Munk's Roll, Vol.VIII, p.8] who were exploiting their ability to grow the influenza virus and to study it in the laboratory. Stuart-Harris’ role was to investigate and document outbreaks of influenza and collect specimens from cases. He also took part in the laboratory work, inoculating and observing ferrets. In this way he discovered that there were outbreaks of acute respiratory disease in Army camps from which influenza viruses could not be recovered and which were subtly different clinically from virus-positive influenza. He named them ‘febrile catarrah’, but it was some years before the aetiology was established. He became the first human to be infected with a laboratory passaged strain of influenza virus when he was sneezed at by a ferret suffering from an experimental infection, thus accidentally fulfilling ‘Koch’s’ postulates for the virus as a cause of the disease in man!

With the support of a Sir Henry Royce fellowship, he then went to the Rockefeller Institute in New York City in 1937 to work in the laboratory of Thomas Francis, who discovered the influenza B virus. He returned to Britain to take up a Foulerton fellowship of the Royal Society, having established himself as an academically outstanding young man with a strong leaning towards research.

With the outbreak of war, however, he was called up. He served as an Army pathologist and was asked to help in the development of a typhus vaccine. However, he acquired typhus in the laboratory in 1942, but fortunately made a complete recovery. He went to Algeria in 1943 with Van den Ende to assist in the administration of the typhus vaccine. Later in 1943 he was in India and helped in treating released POWs in Singapore. In 1945 he was sent to Germany to supervise the care of the last of the concentration camp survivors who had been incarcerated as children.

In 1946 he was appointed as professor of medicine at Sheffield. He had to use what resources were available in a city recovering from serious bombing and disruption. His office consisted of a partitioned-off corner of a disused ophthalmology ward. Further partitions of the ward produced a ‘slit’ and a ‘box’ which were his research laboratory, and beyond them further ‘boxes’ served as offices for lecturers. In the early 1950s a much better suite of laboratories was created out of some nurses’ bedrooms in the Lodgemoor Hospital, an old fever hospital on the edge of the City, and a purpose built animal house was erected in the grounds. His clinical resources consisted of a ward in the Royal Hospital and another in the City General Hospital. Here he developed a thriving department for clinical teaching and care, for research on the pathophysiology of chronic bronchitis and other local clinical problems, and for research and training in clinical and basic virology.

His responsibilities and his influence extended far beyond Sheffield. He was a member of the Medical Research Council and of its clinical research board, of the Public Health Laboratory Service Board from 1961 to 1966 and of the University Grants Committee from 1968 to 1977. (He was an influential chairman of the medical subcommittee of the UGC from 1973 to 1977). He served as president of the Association of Physicians of Great Britain and was appointed Sir Arthur Sims travelling professor in 1962. He was much in demand as a committee chairman and chaired the WHO Expert Committee on Poliomyelitis.

He attended many international meetings and was welcomed as a visitor abroad. He had a particularly close link with J Mulder of the University of Leiden and, with his colleague Hans Hers, shared interests in the epidemiology of influenza and the pathogenesis of influenzal pneumonia. He collaborated with Orie of the University of Groningen on studies into chronic pulmonary disease. He went as a visiting professor to Albany, New York, in 1953 and there interacted with Gilbert Dalldorf, the discoverer of the Coxsackie viruses. After he retired he held a Fogarty fellowship at the National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland, and there made an important input into the re-evaluation of vaccination policy that was being undertaken in the US at that time.

He was fresh faced, with a wide smile, balding and yet ageless for much of his professional life. He was carefully dressed, usually in a dark suit with well polished black shoes. He moved in a controlled and contained way, and also spoke carefully, quietly and deliberately. His small neat writing was on a par with the careful organization of his office, his files of reprints and references and his orderly grasp of detail. Medicine, and particularly medical science, was his consuming interest and he indicated in a biographical note that his interests in gardening and swimming were ‘minor’. Indeed there were those who thought he was primarily a powerful intellectual machine. Yet he had a deep and unwavering affection for his wife, he was always caring about his children, and when his staff had troubles - for instance a tragic bereavement - he could show, perhaps in a single sentence, that he understood and shared their pain.

He managed to attract good people to his department and several of them went on to distinction in clinical medicine. He choose as the first ‘bright young man’ to work in the virus laboratory Alick Isaacs, who subsequently went on to discover interferon at NIMR, Mill Hill, became an FRS, and would probably have received a Nobel prize but for his untimely death. He picked young PhDs, one of whom, Geoffrey Schild, became a distinguished director of the National Institute of Biological Standards and Control. Another was John Oxford, a professor of virology at London University. He maintained international contacts, for instance with Thomas Francis and his group when he moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, and after his visit to Albany he wanted us to work on the Coxsackie virus which had been discovered there by Gilbert Dalldorf.

He expected his own high standards of diligence, logic and honesty from everyone and would not overlook any sloppiness. Probably for that reason some junior clinicians were uncomfortable at his visits to the wards and that they were given lukewarm assessments. If he thought well of trainees, especially of their intellectual promise, he would write behind the scenes to secure suitable future posts for them and to enhance their careers - but one can see where his nickname of the ‘smiling tiger’ came from. On the other hand, when the august University Grants Committee medical subcommittee came to the Royal Postgraduate Medical School Hammersmith, the recently appointed dean was greatly impressed by the trouble Stuart-Harris took to discuss his problems and opportunities and to interest himself in the provisions made for postgraduate students, many of them from overseas.

He did not give the impression that he sought, or was much impressed by, honours or titles. However several of us who had come to know him well used Stuart as his first name, as he was known at home. But we were set to wondering when letters began to arrive signed Charles. Not long after his knighthood was announced and all was explained.

His home and family were, one suspects, always the hub of his very varied and active life. He married his wife, Marjorie, in 1937 and they had two sons and a daughter.

David Tyrrell

[The Times, 20 Mar 1996; The Daily Telegraph, 15 Mar 1996; Brit.med.J., 1997,314,906-7]

(Volume X, page 477)

<< Back to List