Lives of the fellows

Graham Frederick Anthony Harding

b.19 March 1937 d.20 October 2018
BSc Lond(1961) PhD Birm(1968) DSc Aston(1989) Hon MRCP(1998) Hon FRCP(2006)

Graham Harding was a professor of neurophysiology at Aston University, Birmingham. He was born in Birmingham to Frederick Harding, a toolsmith, and Elisabeth Harding née Yates, a hotel owner. He was educated at Torquay Grammar School and at University College London, where he read psychology, graduating in 1961. He then returned to Birmingham, where he spent the rest of his life.

In London he had become fascinated by real-time recording of brain activity from the scalp, electroencephalography (EEG), and his doctorate at Birmingham University was on EEG in psychiatry. He also found time, as a doctoral student, to set up the clinical neurophysiology unit at Aston University in 1963. He led this until his retirement in 2002 and developed it into the largest academic centre in the country.

His life’s work was on photosensitive epilepsy. Together with Peter Jeavons [Munk’s Roll, Vol.X, p.259], a paediatric neurologist, he studied a cohort of around 460 patients, determining their vulnerability to various frequencies of flicker and the effects of contrast, wavelength of light and whether this was presented to one or both eyes. This led to many papers and two books on photosensitive epilepsy. He was early to recognise the dangers of inappropriate material broadcast on television and used in video games. He drafted the original Office of Communications’ (OFCOM) guidelines and became a consultant adviser to the Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre on photosensitivity and televised material.

In December 1997, an episode of the cartoon, Pokémon, was transmitted on Japanese television with a short burst of alternating blue and red light, which led to around 570 children presenting with seizures. He was sent for by the Japanese government and helped draft guidelines for its public broadcasting corporation. He was also instrumental in drafting guidelines for the USA, covering television broadcasts, video games and public events.

Policing these guidelines was a long process, requiring the review of video, frame by frame. So, with the help of his wife, Pamela, he helped develop an automated device for this termed, appropriately enough, the Harding flash and pattern analyser. He was subsequently asked about the safety of other flickering lights, from wind farm blades and, somewhat incongruously, whether contrasting coloured balls posed a danger by the British Isles Bowls Council.

He was also interested in visual evoked potentials recorded from both cortical and subcortical areas, and made studies on various conditions, including multiple sclerosis, optic atrophy and perioperative studies to predict outcome after surgery. When reports began to emerge of the retinotoxic effect of vigabatrin, he was one the first to quantify it through electroretinography.

He never stood still and was amongst the first in the UK to realise the potential of magnetoencephalography (MEG). He bought a single channel MEG system in 1988, and in 1992, through collaboration with the Institute of Physics and Technology in Moscow, organised the first multi-channel system in the UK. In 2000, Graham led a successful Wellcome Trust bid to secure the UK’s first whole head MEG system. Then, in 2002, he retired to allow others to take it forward.

He may have retired to spend more time with his wife and young son, but he also lived for many years with poor cardiac health. Indeed, he survived two out of hospital arrests. The first was on a train leaving Paddington when he was resuscitated by two (unknown) doctors. Admitted to an ITU in west London, he was unconscious for several days, his wife pleading for him not to be ‘switched off’. He woke up and assessed his intact cognition, though he had a small scotoma, supported later by a scan showing an occipital infarct.

In retirement, he also followed his other passion – model trains. He built his own engines, whether coal, oil, diesel or electric, and had a 750-foot track in his back garden. His monthly steam ups were open to all and much enjoyed. Once the Japanese ambassador turned up, in a limo with flag flying, to play model trains. On the road, he had a 1900 replica steam car. Driving his son and girlfriend to their prom, it ran out of steam and they finished the journey on foot. Later it burst into flames. After that, he bought a three-wheeled Morgan, going to the factory in Malvern every few days to keep an eye on its gestation, before, in his 70s, racing it in hill climbs.

He married twice; first to Margaret Wagstaff, with whom he had two daughters, Cathy Cutting and Laura Cooper, and then to Pam Darby, with whom he had a son, Anthony.

He was passionate about education, mentoring more than 40 PhD and MD students and unusually supportive of trainees at national meetings. He was the first professor of clinical neurophysiology in the UK, president of the British Society for Clinical Neurophysiology (BSCN), chairman of the International VEP (visual evoked potential) Standards Committee, and secretary of the International Federation of Clinical Neurophysiology. Though awarded a DSc from Aston, and a Grey Walter Medal from the BSCN – its highest honour – he always said that he gained most satisfaction from his honorary FRCP.

Jonathan Cole

[The Times 15 November 2018 www.thetimes.co.uk/article/professor-graham-harding-obituary-638vn3t30 – accessed 18 December 2018; Aston University Birmingham UK: 50 Aston Greats Professor Graham Harding CPsychol FBPsS Hon MRCP www.aston.ac.uk/alumni/news/meet-our-alumni/50-aston-greats/graham-harding/ – accessed 18 December 2018; International League Against Epilepsy Graham Frederick Anthony Harding 1937-2018 www.ilae.org/about-ilae/in-memoriam/in-memoriam-recent-and-archive-deaths/graham-harding-1937-2018 – accessed 18 December 2018]

(Volume XII, page web)

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