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BMJ. 2007 October 20; 335(7624): 831.
PMCID: PMC2034693

Nigel Henry Harris

Long before the contemporary drive for patient choice, Nigel Harris was a doctor who championed patient's interests. He was an orthopaedic surgeon to St Charles and St Mary's Hospital in London for 26 years. Soon after arriving there at St Charles' in 1964, where he became head of the orthopaedic department, he set about addressing waiting lists. He informed general practitioners all over the country when his department had empty beds, so that those who had been waiting for hip or knee replacement in other places could be admitted and his department work to full capacity. He insisted on giving the date of their operation to all his patients at the time they attended outpatients, much to the displeasure of administrators of the time. Government policy today is trying to achieve similar benefits for NHS patients everywhere: Nigel Harris did it 35 years ago without managerial dictat. In many ways, he was a man before his time. He gave publicity to the patient safety implications of allowing doctors who had trained abroad to practise when their English was not adequate. He was accused of being racially motivated by an MP, and, without support from the medical profession or any financial capital, he successfully privately sued the MP for slander. Nowadays it is routinely accepted that to practise medicine all doctors must demonstrate an adequate standard of English.

Nigel Henry Harris was born in 1924, and as a child showed considerable sporting prowess. At school he became victor ludorum, winning a succession of cups. Aged 17, when his brother was captain of cricket, Surrey and England test player and Ashes legend Sir Jack Hobbs visited with his team. This was just after his retirement from test cricket, with a record batting career including 197 centuries. Batting against the school, with 85 runs, Jack Hobbs was bowled David Harris, stumped Nigel Harris. A century forgone. He continued to play for Nomads and was a longstanding member of the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC).

Nigel went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1942, and qualified as a doctor from the Middlesex Hospital in 1947. His national service was in the Royal Air Force, where he was a senior medical officer and squadron leader. He was involved in the Berlin Airlift of 1949 of civilians under siege by blockade. He wandered into the Russian sector and nearly became a military statistic, but related the tale with a smile.

He won a number of travelling scholarships as an orthopaedic surgeon. He gained fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1958 and went on to become a nationally acclaimed orthopaedic surgeon. He published clinical research on the treatment of bone infections and disorders of the hips in children and adults. He was an early pioneer and became an expert in hip and knee replacement. He was editor of the Postgraduate Textbook of Clinical Orthopaedics.

He established the first NHS Sports Clinic in 1972 and was surgeon to Arsenal Football Club and the Football Association. Many famous sportsmen passed under his knife, including the Compton brothers. He belonged to “the no nonsense school,” which suited the tough football profession. He was known affectionately by Arsenal team players as “Nigel the Knife.” There was a celebrated ward round when, with his retinue of trainees, nurses, and students, he examined a young Arsenal player who had just injured his knee. The lad shrieked out as Nigel's hand touched it:“ ****ing leave it out, Nigel!” He did not bat an eyelid. He had an outstanding bedside manner. Everyone knew exactly where they stood. He had old fashioned values but no pomp or paternalism.

He was a great encourager of people and will be remembered by many trainees, for whom he always had time and advice. He was regarded with an equal degree of fear and respect by hospital managers. If he was convinced he was right, he had the tenacity to fight, whatever the cost. He chaired the planning committee, coping with many warring factions. At a time of great political and financial difficulties, he inspired the success of the development of the Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother Wing at St Mary's Hospital, Paddington.

His commitment to quality of care, his concern for those disadvantaged by poor care, and his relish of challenges meant he was eminently suited to medical expert work.

He joined the Academy of Experts in the 1980s. He was attracted the academy's drive to establish high standards and ethical conduct for expert witnesses. He was one of small band of custodians who assess medical applicants for academy membership and one of first medical members to be elected as fellow. He worked equally for defendants and claimants and was often sole expert appointed by the court. His objectivity at times brought him unpopularity among his colleagues, whose practice he was equally prepared to defend or criticise. He was joint creator with Dr Michael Powers QC of the highly respected standard text on medical negligence, whose fourth edition is shortly to be published. He is remembered with admiration and affection by many contributors, to whom he wrote marvellous long hand letters as co-editor. He was in great demand as an expert who would always tell the truth and put the patient's interests first, receiving 300 new instructions from solicitors each year.

He never missed an opportunity to champion another cause. Troubled by the escalating trend of attacks on police officers and the difficulty of finding suitable places for discharge, he became a key driver in raising funds and persuading the Metropolitan Police to close its rehabilitation unit in Hove and create new modern purpose facilities. He was a founding trustee of the force's Police Rehabilitation Trust in 1985. Flint House, Goring-on-Thames, opened in 1988 by the Queen Mother has since been extended with £4m raised over 20 years and now serves over 3000 officers a year.

He was an independent voice on health matters and champion of patient causes in the Times, striking up a total of 28 published letters. He wrote on subjects such as cost of NHS claims, compensation for medical error, crown immunity, welfare benefits, abuse in work injury, leaving hospital, bed shortages, waiting lists, hospital league tables, media reports of cures, children in care, and responsibilities of doctors and nurses.

He didn't know the meaning of the word retirement. He continued in private practice, writing and editing until his last illness. He loved growing fruit and vegetables. He gained much pleasure from being a racehorse owner, with his wife. The trainer of My Learned Friend, who is currently running, described them as model owners. He also became a fellow of the Animal Health Trust.

He had no side, or hidden agenda. He was never embarrassed to fight honestly and objectively for patients and the disabled, even if that meant ruffling feathers. He was courteous and not a man to push himself forward. His compassion, his conviction, his tenacity, and his unimpeachable integrity will be remembered by many patients, sportsmen, doctors, and lawyers alike. He is survived by his wife, Elizabeth, and two sons.

Those interested in attending a thanksgiving for his life on 12 November 2007 at St Mary's Hospital should contact


Former orthopaedic surgeon St Charles and St Mary's Hospitals, sports doctor, medicolegal expert, author, and patient champion (b 11 July 1924; q Cambridge/Middlesex Hospital 1947; FRCS), d 8 July 2007, aged 82.

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