Lives of the fellows

James Ronald Harries

b.26 June 1919 d.25 May 2008
OBE(1969) MRCS LRCP(1942) MB BS Lond(1946) MRCP(1948) DCH(1948) MD(1952) DTM&H(1952) FRCP(1968)

James Ronald Harries (‘Jimmy’) spent most of his career in Africa, specialising in tropical medicine and the treatment of polio. During the 1950s polio epidemic in Kenya, he introduced the technique of ‘glossopharyngeal frog breathing’ to assist patients unable to breathe naturally. It enabled them to gulp down enough air to come out of their iron lungs for several hours at a time. He learnt the technique while he was in the USA in 1956 on a World Health Organisation fellowship to study respiratory poliomyelitis. One of his most famous patients was a young man of 20, Ian Bompas, whom he taught to frog breathe, thus giving him the opportunity to develop an immense talent for mouth painting – one of his pictures was eventually presented to the Aga Khan.

Harries was born in Porth, South Wales, the son of Thomas, an engineer, and his wife, Evelyn Mary née Tippett, whose father, William, was a farmer. Educated at the local grammar school, he and his brother, Alan, were both sent to London to study medicine. He attended King’s College, London and Charing Cross Hospital and, after completing his initial training in 1942, he enrolled in the RAMC the following year. Posted to medical outreach stations in Kenya, Somaliland, Burma and India, he developed a lifelong fascination with tropical medicine. He credited his lifelong ability to function in intense heat to his time in Berbera, Somaliland and used to recount his experience of exiting from a airplane into temperatures of above 50º C: ‘Yes, quite hot, in fact my eyeballs nearly burnt out of their sockets’.

Demobilised with the rank of captain, he returned to the UK and resumed his postgraduate studies. He qualified in 1946 and did house jobs at the West Hertfordshire Hospital and Charing Cross. The post war competition for hospital jobs in the new NHS was fierce so he departed for Singapore in 1949 to work as a general practitioner and hospital physician. There, in the course of his work, he encountered Sir Gordon Ransome [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.485] and Ben Shears, both notable physicians. The latter became the first president of Singapore.

In 1952 he returned to Kenya, first becoming a provincial physician in Mombasa and then moving to Nairobi to work as a specialist physician with Clinton Manson-Bahr [Munk’s Roll, Vol.X, p.328]. When Manson-Bahr returned to the UK, 10 years later, Harries was appointed senior specialist and, in 1964, consultant physician in neurology to the Kenyatta National Hospital and consultant physician in general medicine to the Aga Khan Platinum Jubilee Hospital, both in Nairobi. For 21 years he stayed in Kenya and achieved much in that time. He set up a cardiac catheterisation unit, a pulmonary function laboratory, an artificial kidney unit and an iron lung unit to care for the paralysed polio victims. A founder member of the Pan African Association of Neurological Sciences, he was also president of the East African Association of Physicians. He had first treated Jomo Kenyatta when he was an opposition leader in prison during the Mau-Mau insurgency and, when he became the first president of the new Republic of Kenya in 1964, Kenyatta appointed him his personal physician. For his services to tropical medicine and his work on polio, he was appointed OBE in 1969.

Leaving Kenya in 1973, he worked briefly in South Africa and Switzerland before moving to Dubai as consultant physician at the Rashid Hospital. In the early 1970s Dubai was hardly developed but Harries was able to build up the hospital’s infectious disease unit, continue his clinical work and research, and develop institutional links with the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. Appointed personal physician to Sheik Rashid and his family, he continued in this role until a few years before his death. Other famous patients of his included His Majesty the King of Bhutan and the Aga Khan.

He contributed over 40 scientific papers on various topics including respiration in polio victims and, with his son Anthony David Harries and G C Cook, wrote 100 clinical problems in tropical medicine (London, Baillièrre Tindall, 1987), a book which was consulted for many years by students of tropical medicine.

His great love for music and opera he attributed to his Welsh upbringing, and he credited his mining ancestry for his physical stamina. Photography was another enthusiasm. A keen sportsman, he played rugby, tennis, snooker and table tennis at various times and took up golf with great enthusiasm in his 40s. It was in trying to improve his swing, at the age of 81, that he managed to damage his spine. After major cardiac surgery in 1984 he was given only a few months to live but continued to lead an independent life until just before he died more than 20 years later. He lived life to the full and had a great sense of adventure.

In 1943 he married Margaret Ingram (‘Peggy’) whose father, Alfred Cousins, was a businessman. They had two sons. After 60 years together, Peggy predeceased him in 2003. For the last 10 years of his life he lived mostly in London while maintaining medical consultancies in Switzerland, Dubai and Cape Town. When he died in Cape Town, from the complications of a fall sustained some three months previously, he was survived by his sons Anthony and Christopher, daughters-in-law Marigo and Melanie, and grandchildren, Katie, Nicola, John, Melissa, Tiffany and Vaughan.

RCP editor

[BMJ www.bmj.com/content/337/bmj.a1467 - accessed 7 January 2015; The Times 26 September 2008]

(Volume XII, page web)

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