Lives of the fellows

John Albert Bews Harrison

b.20 May 1921 d.7 March 2010
OStJ QHP(1976) KBE(1982) MRCS LRCP(1947) DMRD(1955) FRCR(1956) FRCP(1982)

Surgeon Vice-Admiral Sir John Albert Bews Harrison (‘Jab’) was medical director general of the Royal Navy during the time of the Falklands War. Born in Simla, India, he came from a family of engineers who had helped to build the Raj. One of his ancestors had constructed prefabricated bridges over a tributary of the Ganges in the 19th century. His father, Albert William, became manager of a munitions factory in Leeds when he left India. He studied medicine at Queen’s College, Cambridge and St Bartholomew’s Hospital.

During the Second World War, he worked as a hospital doctor in London and was a firewatcher in his spare time. In 1944 he treated the casualties from the Normandy landings at Winchester Hospital and, the following year, volunteered to travel to Belsen to treat the survivors; a friend went instead and died there from an infection picked up in the camp.

In 1947 he enlisted in the RNVR and then the Royal Navy. Serving on the frigate Sparrow as a naval surgeon, he travelled to North America and the West Indies, and was nicknamed ‘Jabbo’ by the crew. While continuing to train at Bart’s and specialise in radiology, he also worked at various naval hospitals throughout the world. Another area of specialism was diving and he submitted a paper on dysbaric osteonecrosis (bone death caused by nitrogen bubbles blocking blood vessels) to an international symposium in Galveston in 1974. A member of the Medical Research Council’s decompression sickness panel for many years, he wrote several textbooks and papers on the subject.

Promoted to surgeon rear admiral in 1977, he was appointed dean of naval medicine and officer in charge of the Institute of Naval Medicine which was recognised internationally as a centre of excellence for occupational health advice, training and research. He had already (in 1975) been made deputy medical director general of the Navy and it was in this role, as deputy to Sir James Watt [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web], that he really made his mark. Despite having little experience of staff management, the success of the navy medical service during the Falklands War in 1982 was largely attributed to him.

He retired from the Navy the following year but continued his research into diver’s health, covering those who worked both in the services and in the oil industry. He enjoyed chess, cricket, travel and fly fishing, and caught a salmon on the Dee on his 70th birthday.

In 1944 he married Jane née Harris whose father, David Leonard, was a farmer. At the time she was serving in the Women's Royal Naval Service. Later she developed a long illness and Harrison nursed her through it until she died in 1988. He died 22 years later and was survived by their two sons, Timothy and Jeremy, and grandchildren John and Elizabeth Jane.

RCP editor

[The Daily Telegraph - accessed 8 June 2015]

(Volume XII, page web)

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