Lives of the fellows

John Francis Harrison

b.13 June 1932 d.10 April 2014
MB BChir Cantab(1956) DObst(1957) MRCP(1961) FRCP(1977)

John Francis Harrison was a consultant geriatrician in Birmingham. He was born in Coalville, Leicestershire, the first child of Howard Kenneth and Edith Harrison. His father was a teacher. He was educated at Wyggeston Grammar School, Leicester, and then at St John’s College, Cambridge, initially to read natural sciences, particularly botany, but changed to medical sciences after the first year. He moved to St Thomas’s Hospital Medical School for clinical training and qualified in 1956.

After National Service in Germany, he gained his MRCP in 1961, and was a medical registrar in Stoke-on-Trent for two years. He considered general practice for a time because of the difficulties in advancement in hospital medicine, but moved to Birmingham General Hospital and then to Queen Elizabeth Hospital as a senior registrar in renal medicine, where he also undertook research.

He was appointed as a consultant physician to Selly Oak Hospital in 1966. Within a few years he realised that what the hospital needed was an effective geriatric service. He spent three months in Hull, seeing how the department was run there, and went back to south Birmingham to reform the geriatric service, making it more dynamic and responsive by making flexible use of its large numbers of ‘peripheral’ hospital beds, reducing the demand for long-term care by developing a large respite care programme, and putting discipline into the admissions policy. He reorganised and enhanced the service while Bernard Isaacs [Munk’s Roll, Vol.X, p.248] developed the university department of geriatric medicine, in the establishment of which he also played a role. Harrison was elected an FRCP in 1977.

He was particularly involved in what became the Central Birmingham Health Authority. Although it was dominated by the teaching hospitals, the authority was also responsible for Moseley Hall Hospital, where Harrison was in charge of the younger disabled unit, Hillcrest. In 1985 he was seconded for a year to study such services on behalf of the Royal College of Physicians, leading to the publication of Severe physical disability: responses to the challenge of care (London, Cassell, 1987). The experience of working with younger, and more vocal, disabled people influenced him substantially.

During the late 1980s he also established the first on-site geriatric service at Queen Elizabeth Hospital, despite the efforts of its managers. He retired from clinical practice in 1991, but remained involved in organisations associated with disability for a few years thereafter.

As a colleague, he was original, stimulating, passionate on matters about which he cared, and forceful to the point of righteous anger when necessary. He had a radical streak, reflecting liberal political and social views throughout his life. His slightly unconventional side was illustrated by this senior fellow opening his briefcase on the train back from a meeting at the RCP, and taking out a copy of the satirical magazine Private Eye.

John Harrison retired to rural Shropshire, where his other interests flowered. Having been a musician as a student (he sung in the choir of All Saints, Margaret Street), he studied literature and took up poetry, as well as continuing a lifelong love of hill-walking and the country, and developed a beautiful house and garden. He had married Rachel Margaret née Story (‘Rae’), whom he met at St Thomas’, in 1959, and they had two sons, Rob and Paul: time with his grandchildren was an important part of his retirement. His health deteriorated with aortic valve disease, a problematic valve replacement, and latterly peripheral neuropathy, until his death a few days after a stroke.

Edmund Dunstan

[Simon Nightingale; Martin Carmalt; BMJ 2014 348 3669]

(Volume XII, page web)

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