Lives of the fellows

Robert Alexander Kemp Harper

b.25 May 1906 d.27 October 2009
MB ChB Edin(1929) DR(1932) MRCP Edin(1946) FRFPS Glasg(1947) FRCP Edin(1950) MD Edin(1952) MRCP(1952) FFR(1954) MRCP Glasg(1962) FRCP(1963) FRCP Glasg(1964) FRCR(1977)

Robert Alexander Kemp Harper was director of radiology at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London. He was born in Dundee, the son of John Harper and Margaret née Kemp. He studied medicine at Edinburgh University, graduating in 1929. He initially practised for two years as a GP in Keith, Banffshire, and then commenced training in radiology at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.

After qualifying, he purchased a private specialist X-ray practice in Stoke-on-Trent, where he practised for five years. Here much of his work was in the five hospitals of the north Staffordshire region, mostly done on a voluntary and unpaid basis. In 1939, at the age of just 32, he was appointed as director of radiology at Glasgow Royal Infirmary, where he remained until 1946, when he was recruited as director of radiology at Bart’s, London. Here he led one of the best-regarded departments in the field, overseeing major technological change and having to fight the system for the resources to maintain the department’s pre-eminence. While continuing to read X-rays and prepare diagnoses, he ran the department, oversaw major building works, reviewed equipment and managed installations. He also had responsibility for training and there are radiologists from all over the world who benefited from his knowledge.

At the end of the Second World War, he toured the major medical establishments of the Eastern USA for nine weeks, exchanging expertise with similarly eminent specialists. While at Bart’s, he undertook three extensive lecture tours of South Africa, published some 60 articles and wrote Radiology of the duodenum (London, Lloyd-Luke, 1967). He also contributed to many other academic works, as a backdrop to a most distinguished career in a demanding discipline. During this period he also acted as a civilian consultant in radiology to the Royal Navy.

He was appointed as vice president of the Faculty of Radiology, and was an external examiner to the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. He had the honour of being invited to lecture at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and in his semi-retirement was asked to set up an X-ray department in a new hospital in Tehran, but declined.

In 1934 he married Elizabeth Helen Margaret née Duncan, known as ‘Elma’, to whom he remained happily married until her death in 1995.

In 1991 he was accepted as the ‘oldest probationer’ on record at Chester Golf Club, aged 85, where he played for a further 10 years before having to give up. At that time he was given honorary life membership. His 100th birthday celebrations took place on and around 25 May 2006, with parties and visitors offering congratulations. Soon after his 101st birthday, his Renault Mégane car was given up in favour of a three-wheeled scooter, with much regret. The sporting activities continued at home, where an exercise bicycle was used frequently. Much entertaining continued and, until shortly before his death, he liked nothing more than to invite friends out for a meal, a chin wag and a dram of whisky. In his 103rd year, he suffered some falls at his home in Chester and moved to a nursing home in Malvern close to his only son. He will be long remembered for his interest in the lives of those around him and for his positive and happy view of life.

Lindsay Kemp-Harper

[The Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh]

(Volume XII, page web)

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