The knight has passed but his days live on

On the roof of the Pennsylvania Hotel, New York, in transit to John Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore, USA, 1931
On the roof of the Pennsylvania Hotel, New York, in transit to John Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore, USA, 1931

THIRTY three years ago this week, a truly unique Ulsterman’s heart stopped beating - a heart that pulsed with enlightenment and learning. CHARLIE WARMINGTON marks the publication of a book about Sir John Henry Biggart C.B.E., written by his son Denis Biggart

BORN on a Limavady farm in 1856, the prime minister of New Zealand William Massey must have marvelled at Ulster’s ethnic transformation when he revisited his homeland in 1926.

He was welcomed in Belfast by an enthusiastic tribe of Maoris! The dark faced ‘natives’ held a ceremonial feast outside Queen’s University and then deposited their illustrious ex-pat in the Ulster Reform Club to continue his official duties. On their way back from the Club the Maoris detoured into a girls’ school where their amorous intentions revealed their true identity. Their faces had been darkened with stage make-up, and as it smudged off onto the girls’ inviting smiles, their cover was blown. The Maoris were Queen’s University medical students, and one of their ring-leaders was 21-year-old John Henry Biggart.

“We had a rather mystical conception of what a doctor could do,” John Henry self-deprecatingly recounted of his medical training, when the future knight was merely at the dawn of a dazzling vocation.

He was “quite simply, the most creative force in Ulster medicine in the 20th century, perhaps ever,” wrote acclaimed medical academic and former QUB vice-chancellor Sir Peter Froggatt in the foreword to Denis Biggart’s book about his father.

“Yet little is known of the man himself,” added Sir Peter. Uniquely qualified to write about John Henry, author Denis Biggart, his only son and a Queen’s trained pathologist, prefaces his gripping biography: “I was able to observe him as a father and family man as well as a lecturer, professor, Dean, director of specialist training and research, and administrator.”

John Henry was a strong potion of formality, gruffness, charm, ambition, geniality, “benign dictatorship” and humour, yet he was “ever a dreamer at heart, something of a romantic if a seemingly unlikely one, and an innovative visionary,” writes Denis.

His father excelled in Greek, Latin and the classics and was a music-lover, philosopher, tennis player, orator and poet as well as being tirelessly involved with countless charity organisations. Always clasping his smouldering pipe, John Henry similarly clasped, and loved, everything that life could offer him, and vice versa, well illustrated in his poem called ‘Desires’ - “Give me the joyous life I love, And I’ll not ask for more: a night to revel, a day to rove, And peace when all is o’er.”

In his youth he played on RBAI’s First XV and for Ballygowan’s soccer team. He was the QUB student billiards champion and medicine medal-holder, simultaneously. As a professor he had a prominent role in establishing Northern Ireland’s Emergency Blood Transfusion Service, told risqué jokes during lectures (to embarrass the girls), and was on the joint advisory committee of the Tuberculosis Authority which virtually wiped out the disease between 1955 and 1959. In February 1969 he received a letter from PM Terence O’Neill - “…if you could see your way to join the Commission, I and my colleagues would very much appreciate it.” He did, and they did, and the Cameron Commission impacted strongly on Ulster’s troubled predicament.

“He was a man whom my sister Rosemary (also a doctor) and I are proud to call our father,” Denis’s preface ends.

“I was conceived in Co Clare,” wrote John Henry at the start of his reminiscences, a profound beginning to chapter one in the book, as few if any of us know where we were conceived.

Towards the end of his life he spent his evenings in his favourite armchair at the fireplace in 64 Kings Road, Knock, Belfast, sipping whiskey, puffing his pipe, and jotting down his memories. His widow Isobel readily passed his notes to Dr John Weaver who used them as a basis for his presidential address to the Ulster Medical Society in 1985. These notes are now back with John Henry’s son Denis, who draws on them for his book, and rightly observes that none of us can be as certain as his father claimed to be about his place of conception. If there’d there been a post code, or an address or telephone number, John Henry doubtlessly could have quoted it!

“He had an inner confidence and assertiveness,” Denis concludes, “which persuaded him…that he was right.”

Good teachers tend to be right! John Henry was the eldest child of a country schoolmaster and school mistress from Co Antrim, where he spent the first seven years of his life. He was born on November 17, 1905, and his mother was “apparently concerned at the size of the baby’s head.” The doctor who delivered him told her reassuringly (?) “with a head that size he is either a hydrocephalic or the future lord chancellor.”

Though christened John Henry, close family and friends called him Harry until he began his rise towards medical stardom. Anyone keen to discuss ‘nature or nurture’ could have a field day with his early life. His teacher-parents were dominating personalities, devoted to education and demanding the highest standards. His aunt was a teacher too, and his brother Hugh became an eminent surgeon. Their Templepatrick home had previously belonged to a family whose two sons became prominent surgeons, though in 1912 the Biggarts moved to Ballygowan. The young John Henry attended his parents’ two-classroom school, Carrickmannon, several miles outside the town, where he and his fellow pupils’ concentration “was all the better focused by the prominent display of a long flexible cane on the wall of each room”!

In his early teens John Henry attained 96 per cent in a mathematics exam, and was pleased. His father wasn’t. Stressing that maths was an exact science his dad exclaimed: “You ought to have scored 100 per cent. Get upstairs to your desk and make sure you do better next time.”

Ballygowan undoubtedly moulded the young lad’s character and “the influences that he encountered at this time were all-important in setting the pattern for his later successes,” writes Denis.

The Biggart’s enlightened, highly-educated Presbyterian minister treated John Henry as an equal, and introduced him to literature and philosophy as they discussed “all the problems of the world.” John Henry was charmed by Ballygowan’s traditional village life, presided over “by the parson, the priest, the doctor and the squire,” where the “humblest were as important as the richest, for the one could not function without the other.”

He observed people living in poverty “yet managing to keep smiles on their faces and warmth in their hearts,” and in later years he “would often recall the idyllic times of his early life in the town.” Though his characteristic self-confidence spawned quiet reservations about RBAI’s headmaster, he excelled at Inst. where he enthusiastically inhaled the school’s heady, eclectic atmosphere, shared by future rugby internationals, Oxford and Cambridge entrants, and multi-scholarship holders like himself.

“To him this was the champagne of youth,” writes Denis.

‘Johnny’ Pyper, ‘Bubbly’ Martin, ‘Baldy’ Carson and ‘Boozy’ Sinclair passed on to him their authoritative knowledge of history, mathematics, languages, and science, and in 1923 John Henry progressed from RBAI to QUB bearing scholarships in nearly all of his teachers’ subjects. His busy schedule as university rag organiser, student representative, Union vice-president and medical students vice-president included mandatory appointments with disciplinary inquisitions, one in 1926 requiring him to plea on behalf of a fellow-student who’d attacked a dusty framed portrait of an eminent academic. Another concerned a pretty rag-night Queen of Sheba whose dress became undone in the revelries, attracting the undue attention of the few male students who, despite their inebriation, could focus on her semi-nakedness. During the ensuing interrogation John Henry was asked by the unusually enlightened Professor Symmers, dean of the faculty of medicine - “Biggart, did you see anything that a drop of drink couldn’t explain?”

The young medic immediately appreciated that his questioner “was a man with his feet on the ground” and based on this incident, writes Denis, John Henry “gained an inner confidence by realising that a medical training provided an insight and understanding of the range of acceptable human behaviour.”

He realised much more besides, including a second class honours M.B., B.Ch. B.A.O., first place and first class honours in Pathology and Bacteriology, the Adami Medal in Pathology, first place and first class honours in Hygiene, runner-up in the coveted Sinclair Medal for Surgery, and a gold medal for Diseases of Children.

“A slip to third place in Therapeutics and Pharmacology,” concludes Denis, “helped to display that he was only human,” confirmed by his total inability at singing! He attended Ballymacarrett Presbyterian Church where choirgirl Isobel Gibson’s alluring beauty more than eclipsed his blinding tone-deafness, so he discarded his musical aspirations, joined her as a Sunday School teacher, and got engaged in 1928. His General Practice and hospital training was less romantic, and he was greatly perplexed with the number of Saturday-night drunks rampaging through A&E.

On a single locum shift he attended to a stroke victim; a child with congenital syphilis, measles and pneumonia; a young mother whose life was threatened with an ectopic pregnancy; a man with renal colic, and a baby with meningitis. He worked with a doctor who only signed incapacity certificates for his patients, and who refused to examine them - “the suggestion that this was necessary was vehemently resisted. It was an entirely paper practice!”

General practice had lost its shine! The young Dr Biggart went to the USA on a Commonwealth Fellowship, on the Belfast-built 26,000-ton brand new RMS Britannic. He was late to embark – “Mister, I can’t hold the bloody boat,” said the beleaguered sailor at the gangway.

Isobel remained at home with a poetic prescription from her lover – “Remember me when I am gone away. Gone far unto another place, where I no more can look you in your face, smiling in welcome, entreating you to stay.” John Henry excelled in the company of the great and cultured men of medicine at John Hopkins Hospital, Harvard, Yale and Cleveland, and learned how to distil gin and locate spirits during prohibition!

In July 1933 he returned to Belfast, and then went to Edinburgh in September as a lecturer in neuropathology and pathologist to the Scottish Assylum’s Board, where he occasionally played bridge with two homicidal patients. He always thought twice about winning! He married Isobel in 1934 and Denis was born on November 18, 1936, six weeks after the publication of John Henry’s hugely successful oft-reprinted book, ‘Pathology of the Nervous System’.

Declining the offer of a teaching post at Oxford University, he returned with wife and Denis to Belfast, as Professor of Pathology from 1937 to 1971. Daughter Rosemary was born in 1942. His time as professor, institute director, and faculty dean is detailed by Denis, and summarised by Sir Peter Froggatt: “No one before or since has wielded such power and influence in Ulster medicine, and he wielded them with an almost faultless touch during a lengthy period of unprecedented structural changes in the profession.”

Denis’s book hugely praises his father’s hard-worked staff, giving everyone hefty accolades for their vital part in putting Belfast firmly on the world-map of medicine. Yesterday in 1979, on his way to a General Medical Council meeting in London, John Henry Biggart collapsed with a massive heart attack and died immediately – “the way he had always hoped that he would go…he dreaded the thought of a more lingering illness,” writes Denis. Shortly after his father’s death he received a letter from John Henry’s former Greek and Latin teacher that ended with the words ‘Magnus civis obit’- the Great Citizen is Dead. The unique Ulsterman who instigated the irreplaceable life-saving Blood Transfusion Service; the world-class pathologist who became university pro-vice chancellor, pro-chancellor and member of QUB Senate; the chairman or committee member on every leading medical body; the tireless charity campaigner - he had a note in his diary when he died, a quotation from Wordsworth - ‘the things which I have seen, I now can see no more.’ But we can see his handiwork.

The knight has passed, but his days live on.

- John Henry Biggart, by Denis Biggart, can be obtained from the Ulster Historical Foundation at 49, Malone Road, Belfast, BT9 6RY, or online at book at £9.99.