Lives of the fellows

Peter Gordon Harries

b.26 September 1931 d.26 September 2006
MB BS Lond(1955) DObst RCOG(1964) DIH(1965) MD(1970) MRCP(1972) MFCM(1974) MFOM(1978) FFOM(1979) FRCP(1986)

Peter Harries, who served as president and honorary secretary of the Society of Occupational Medicine, died peacefully on his 75th birthday from metastatic prostate cancer. Kind, caring and gregarious, he was an inspired and inspirational occupational physician who earned international renown for his original research and encyclopaedic knowledge of asbestos-related diseases. This work was the basis for improvements in working standards that provided life saving protection for countless thousands of workers worldwide.

Born in Brynamman, Carmarthenshire, Wales, Peter was proudly patriotic and cast aside his usual quiet demeanour when encouraging and celebrating the national rugby football team. His funeral service was rich in Welsh songs and poetry. He was educated at Gowerton Grammar School, Ellesmere College in Shropshire and the London Hospital Medical College, where his interest in industrial medicine was inspired by “the dynamic, sometimes manic", teaching of Donald Hunter [Munk’s Roll, Vol.II, p.288]. He played rugby football, lawn tennis, hockey and squash racquets and is remembered as a model student. He graduated in 1955 and then, following pre-registration appointments at the West Suffolk General Hospital, joined the Royal Navy on a three year short service commission with the rank of acting surgeon lieutenant. He immediately saw action during the Suez crisis.

In August 1956 he joined the daring class destroyer HMS Diana. Along with the cruiser HMS Newfoundland they caused fatal casualties. Domiat, an Egyptian destroyer, was severely damaged by return of fire from Newfoundland and then finished off by the accompanying Diana when it was thought she was trying to ram her. Peter was involved in the rescue of 69 survivors from the wreckage of the Egyptian ship and especially in caring for the 12 who were seriously wounded. Peter was mentioned in despatches in recognition for his “gallant and distinguished services”. His commanding officer reported that: “He was instrumental in saving a number of lives and did two major operations under difficult conditions with little professional help and marked success. The ship’s company has great faith in him.”

He was soon to face further tests of his courage and skills when, bound for the West Indies in HMS Ulster, his ship was among those which responded to an SOS from the oil laden tanker Stony Point, which had been in collision at night in dense fog with the freighter Ioannis south west of the Isle of Ushant – just 20 miles away. Both ships were on fire. When Ulster arrived Stony Point was burning from stem to stern and there were many men in the water which was covered with a blazing oil slick. Peter was among those sent to both ships by whaler and cutter, which later were found to have been charred by the flames. He cared for the injured there and then onboard Ulster as they made passage to Brest. Ulster brought to Brest seven dead and 27 survivors – many seriously injured. Later in that appointment Peter showed other facets of his personality as he excelled in the challenging post of ship’s entertainment officer during the ship’s deployment in the West Indies.

It is a measure of the man that, when recounting this period of his life, he made no mention of these events or his award, but chose to celebrate his success in getting the seat height of lavatories lowered by three inches as the men were complaining about the angle at which they had to perform!

He left Ulster in June 1958, spent a year in the Royal Naval Barracks at Plymouth and a brief spell at Chatham, then returned to civilian practice in Wales. There he earned the respect and affection of colleagues and patients whilst gaining experience in obstetrics and gynaecology as a principal in general practice and, as he remarked when applying to re-join the Royal Navy in 1962, “some anaesthetics”. He had also fallen in love with Ann, a staff nurse, and captured her heart. They married in March 1960.

On re-entry in October 1962 for a five year short service commission, he was appointed in the rank of surgeon lieutenant commander to the Royal Marine Depot Deal, where he served in the Infirmary. As was to be the pattern for his professional career, his colleagues recorded that it was a pleasure to work with him, remarking on “his sense of duty and living up to it”. He was also considered “an excellent anaesthetist”. Whilst at Deal he gained the diploma in obstetrics of the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, having sat the examination “to see whether or not I could get down to the books again”.

He transferred to the permanent list in late 1963 with a view to specialising in preventive and industrial health, and took up the post of assistant medical officer in Devonport Dockyard in September 1964. He observed during his clinical duties that men who were occupationally exposed to asbestos, but who did not come under the regulations designed to provide protection – and so went unprotected – had signs of asbestosis. He was further inspired and was encouraged in this interest by Geoffrey Shears, a local chest physician. Having studied in his own time, he sat and passed the diploma in industrial health in July 1965. He so impressed his examiners with his knowledge, especially of asbestos-related diseases, and the conclusions he had drawn from his clinical observations that Richard Schilling [Munk’s Roll, Vol.X, p.434] of London School of Hygiene sent for him after the examination and suggested he should study for the MD in this subject. He also alerted the medical director general (naval) of the urgent need for research and that Peter was the man to undertake it.

That professorial intervention, together with his seniors’ very positive assessment of Peter’s intelligence, professional judgement, zeal, persuasiveness, diplomacy, firmness of purpose and high sense of duty resulted in unusually swift action. By that December the medical director general (naval) had arranged for Peter to be re-appointed for “special duties” to establish, in Devonport Dockyard, a joint Ministry of Defence and Medical Research Council unit and initiate research into ‘the asbestos problem’ and early detection of the disease. This work absorbed him until he left the service some ten years later. In June 1966 he was promoted to surgeon commander and re-appointed.

His work became of national and international significance and formed the basis of much of the policy upon which the control of risks of asbestos-related diseases would, in future, be based. Research colleagues at the medical research unit at Devonport included such eminent figures as John Gilson [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IX, p.107], Peter Oldham, Vernon Timbrell, Charles Rossitter, John Cotes, and Richard and Margaret Wagner from the MRC Pneumoconiosis Unit at Penarth; Geoffrey Shears, and, in due course, a second naval medical officer, surgeon commander Kevin Lumley. Sample studies, initially involving 420 workers at Devonport, were followed by a massive radiological and questionnaire survey of 42,275 workers in all the home dockyards. This involved six years work and achieved 84 per cent compliance. Such success was achieved principally because of Peter’s meticulous planning, generous friendship and ability to enthuse not only the managers and the senior medical officers of these yards (including David Wright, Tom Oliver and Jeff Nicholas) who became dedicated co-workers. He also enthused the workers themselves and the trade union officials who represented them and several convenors, shop stewards and other officials became staunch allies.

Peter’s reports and advice were of immense value to the Ministry of Defence and managers of all the Royal dockyards. The studies confirmed the size of the problem and led to major improvements in working practices in all the dockyards and in the control of the removal of asbestos and the use of alternative materials. Evidence of damage already done which has emerged over the years since these changes indicate that his work must have saved thousands of lives. Few doctors merit that accolade.

The importance of the work to the Navy was said to be beyond estimation and it was recognised as a tribute to his exceptional energy, perseverance, personal and professional integrity. He published many acclaimed papers in the scientific literature, progressed to the higher degree of doctor of medicine (1970), enjoyed the rare distinctions of being elected to membership of the College (1972), gained the diploma of industrial health honoris causa from the Society of Apothecaries in 1974; and was awarded the Royal Navy’s Erroll Eldridge prize (1969), the Gilbert Blane gold medal (1972) and the Rene Barthe international occupational health prize (1972).

He was appointed specialist in preventive and industrial medicine, senior specialist in 1971 and then in 1973 was graded consultant. Peter moved to the retired list at his own request in December 1972. Peter saw new and exciting challenges in occupational respiratory and other system diseases in the food industry and was to lead the occupational health, safety and hygiene service for Ranks Hovis McDougall (then employing 76,000 people in over 200 factories in the UK). During this time he helped to further research into respiratory problems in the food industry in conjunction with Newman Taylor and helped formulate medical supervision policies for the food industry through the Food Industry Medical Officers Group. He was further recognised by his election to the fellowship of the Faculty of Occupational Medicine and the College.

Peter retired with Ann to Hythe, where he pursued his love of the sea and regularly sailed on the Solent until his final illness. Peter leaves his wife Ann, four children and eight grandchildren – all of whom he adored.

Simon Harries
G H Grant McMillan

[J Royal Naval Medical Service,2007,Vol.93,No.1,pp.39-41;Brit.med.J.,2007,334,753]

(Volume XII, page web)

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