Lives of the fellows

Henry Joseph Macaulay Barnett

b.10 February 1922 d.20 October 2016
CC(2003) OC(1984) MD Toronto(1944) FRCPC(1952) FRCP(1980) FACP(1997)

Henry Barnett – known to friends and colleagues alike as ‘Barney’ – was the scientific director of the John P Robarts Research Institute in London, Ontario, Canada and a leading stroke researcher. Barney was one of four children born to Canon Thomas William Barnett, a Church of England clergyman, and his wife, Sadie Barnett née Macaulay, in Newcastle upon Tyne in a house which, his dear friend John Walton [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web] took great pleasure in pointing out, later became a rather notorious bordello.

He and his family emigrated to Canada in 1925 and there, as a young child, he skipped Sunday school to go birdwatching. His association with the field ornithologist Jim Baillie taught him, at a very early age, the importance of absolute accuracy in observation, the necessity of keeping scrupulous notes and inspired in him an insatiable curiosity for all things biological. His father, who had worked as a missionary and struggled to provide for a wife and four children, dissuaded Barney from a career in ornithology, suggesting that it was frivolous and that medicine was a more appropriate career. Furthermore, he enticed Barney with an offer of helping with his tuition if he pursued that course of study.

Barney studied medicine at the University of Toronto and was taught physiology by Charles Best [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.35] – the co-discoverer of insulin. It was during his internship at the Toronto General Hospital that he met a nurse, Kathleen Gourlay, with whom he fell in love and who later became his beloved wife. During that internship, he injected a woman stricken with subacute bacterial endocarditis with penicillin – the first civilian to receive that drug in Canada.

Barney received his neurological training at the National Hospital, Queen Square in London and at Oxford where, among others, he was taught by Purdon Martin [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VIII, p.323], Hugh Cairns and Charles Symonds [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VIII, p.563], grandfathers of modern neurology. During his training at Queen Square, Barney shared a flat with Charles Drake, a young neurosurgeon from Canada, and so began a long friendship. From 1952 to 1969 Barney engaged in a busy teaching and consultative practice in Toronto, both inside and outside of the hospital. In his own words, during that time he ‘contributed sparsely’ to the medical literature.

In 1969, at the request of his friend Charlie Drake, he moved to Western University, London, Ontario, where they established a department of clinical neurological sciences – bringing together neurologists, neurosurgeons, neuroradiologists, neuropathologists, neuroanaesthesiologists and nurses, technologists, physiotherapists and occupational therapists – all committed to the concept of the team treatment of patients with neurological disorders. This model has been adopted since quite successfully in Edinburgh, Calgary and Oxford – to name only a few sites.

In this new milieu in London, Ontario, Barney blossomed academically and was able to achieve his greatest contributions to clinical neuroscience – confirmation of the clinical utility of aspirin in the prevention of stroke (‘A randomized trial of aspirin and sulfinpyrazone in threatened Stroke’ N Engl J Med 1978; 299:53-59), demonstration that external carotid/internal carotid bypass was of no benefit in the prevention of stroke and dementia (‘Failure of extracranial-intracranial arterial bypass to reduce the risk of ischemic stroke – results of an international randomized trial’ N Engl J Med 1985; 313:1191-1200) and the benefit of carotid endarterectomy in stroke prevention for patients with moderate to severe stenosis (‘Benefit of carotid endarterectomy in patients with symptomatic moderate or severe stenosis’ N Engl J Med 1998; 339:1414-1425’).

When Barney retired as chair of the department of clinical neurological sciences in 1984, he because the first scientific director of the John P Robarts Research Institute. On the corner stone of that building Barney had a quote engraved: ‘To strive, to seek, to find’ – an apt quotation for a research institute. The quote is from Tennyson’s great poem Ulysses and is part of this sentence: ‘Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will/ To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.’ To the very end of his life, Barney maintained his strong will, and continued to strive, to seek for new knowledge, and he was definitely not someone to yield.

In 1984 he was made an officer of the Order of Canada and was promoted to companion (the highest rank) in 2003. In 1995, he was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame for his work on stroke prevention.

Alastair M Buchan, one of Barney’s protégés, related the following anecdote on the occasion of Barney’s receipt of an honorary degree from Oxford University: ‘I introduced Barney to Aung San Suu Kyi. Barney, as quick as a flash, said to her that his heroes in life had been Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and now Aung San Suu Kyi, because all four had stood up to repressive regimes and had changed the lives of all those who had been oppressed in their countries. He said he was in awe, and just as quickly, Aung San Suu Kyi said, “Dr Barnett, what we did, Gandhi, King, Mandela and myself, was to stand up to authoritarian figures; what you did was to discover how to prevent stroke and hopefully to prevent dementia. That is far more important than our transitory contribution; your contribution will last down the ages and will help all of man- and womankind.”’ It is difficult to provide a better crowning comment on Barney’s academic life than that.

Barney was a gifted clinician with a wealth of experience. He was blessed with a keen mind, a keen intellect and a wonderful sense of humour that helped him to build teams to help people do their very best. He described academic medicine as ‘the greatest show on earth’ and he was always humbly grateful to have had a front row seat at that show. His passing leaves a vacant seat, however one can be confident that it will not remain vacant for long because Barney the teacher ensured that the next occupants of those front row seats are already out there eagerly filing into the auditorium to do their part.

Paul E Cooper

[Barnett HJM. ‘Reflections on aspects of medical progress 1944-2008 – part 1. The launch of a journey lasting 65 years: personal observations made from a front-row seat at the greatest show on earth.’ Can J Neurol Sci 2009 Jan;36(1):6-13; Buchan AM. ‘Obituary – HJM Barnett 1922-2016’. Int J Stroke. 2017 Jan;12(1):NP3-NP6; Stroke 2016;48:00-00 – accessed 16 November 2017; Neurology February 28, 2017;88(9):824-5 – accessed 16 November 2017; American Neurological Association Henry J M Barnett – accessed 16 November 2017; BMJ 2016 355 6293 – accessed 16 November 2017]

(Volume XII, page web)

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