Sir John Henry Biggart (1905 - 1979):
John Henry Biggart (familiarly ‘Harry’) was born in Belfast and died suddenly in London when still fully active. From modest beginnings he become, by wide consent, the most creative force in Ulster medicine in the twentieth century.
Biggart’s parents were schoolteachers from County Antrim but moved to Ballygowan, County Down, when he was six. Taught at first by his parents in nearby Carrickmannon Primary School, in 1918 he entered the Royal Belfast Academical Institution (RBAI), travelling daily by train, and had an outstanding academic and sporting record with awards in Mathematics (Sullivan Scholarship), Ancient Languages (Hyndman Scholarship), French (Musgrave Scholarship), History (Blain Memorial Scholarship), honour caps in rugby, and an Entrance Foundation Scholarship in Physics and Chemistry to Queen’s University, Belfast (QUB). At Queen’s his academic success continued with top places in Anatomy (Symington Medal), Pathology and Bacteriology (Adami Medal), Hygiene, the Gold Medal of the Ulster Hospital for Sick Children, and ultimately high honours in Final MB. Not all his achievements were academic: abandoning rugby for billiards he was University billiards champion, while his later negotiating and administrative skills and regard for colleagues’ interests were fashioned during his Presidency of the Students’ Representative Council with a seat on the University Senate (the governing body at Queen’s). Choosing a career in Pathology he joined the Queen’s Department of Pathology for two years where he gained the MD degree with Gold Medal and won a coveted Commonwealth (Harkness) Scholarship to Johns Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore in 1931. He returned to Edinburgh in 1933 for a fruitful four years as Lecturer in Neuropathology at the University, pathologist to the Scottish Agricultural Board and neuropathologist to the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary; wrote a popular textbook which went through three editions as well as re-printings (1946-1961), and many research articles; gained a Doctor of Science degree from Queens’ (1937); and returned to Queen’s in 1947 as Professor of Pathology.
Biggart had a clear vision of how medicine in all its ramifications should develop in Northern Ireland, and under his guidance it largely did. Through ability, force of character, a strong work ethic inculcated by his schoolteacher parents, and an unerring judgement of people and events he precociously gained and held, often for long periods, key positions in Queen’s and in the new National Health Service structures in Northern Ireland, while at national level he was a member of the General Medical Council, and several other key bodies. During World War II he had organised and run the Emergency Blood Transfusion Service for Northern Ireland, an early example of his administrative abilities for which he was appointed CBE in 1948. He held the Deanship of the Queen’s Faculty of Medicine for 27 years (a one-year term of office but being re-elected 26 consecutive times), a post which as well as influencing and at times also controlling medical and dental education and research also gave him either ex officio membership of, or frequently co-option to, the central decision-making bodies of the university as a whole; and on retirement (in 1971) he was appointed a Pro-Chancellor entitled to chair the University’s governing body. He was founding chairman for fourteen years (1950-1964) of the Medical Education and Research Committee of the Northern Ireland Hospitals Authority which effectively controlled study leave, junior clinical research posts and promotions as well as NHS research monies; and on its creation in 1971 he became chairman of the Northern Ireland Council for Postgraduate Medical and Dental Education which regulated the professional training and education programmes and oversaw their implementation, a post he held until his death; and he was chairman of the Standing Medical Advisory Committee of the Ministry of Health for Northern Ireland and its successor body for eight years, well into his retirement.
Nationally, he was the Queen’s University representative on the General Medical Council for 28 consecutive years (1951-1979), dying in office. He encouraged collaboration with medically-orientated local and national charities and was involved at times with the policies and administration of at least eight. For all this time he retained not just the support of his colleagues but their confidence. To them, as to thousands of Queen’s medical graduates, he was an iconic figure: a gifted teacher, an effective administrator, an industrious if demanding senior, but above all a straight dealer, widely trusted and respected, and seen by many as the man who inherited a provincial, under-funded medical school and built it into one of national, and international, reach.
Biggart had a fine, even commanding appearance, moustached, well dressed and with ever-present pipe in hand or mouth, a persona of solidity, resembling the confidant, self-assured benevolent despot which he surely was. He was also a private man, many of whose opinions remained hardly known until after his death when an extensive collection of personal papers came to light. From these emerged a very different person, first disclosed through a Presidential Address to the Ulster Medical Society by a close colleague, who had been given access to some of the papers, and recently through the biography by his son, himself a Queen’s medical graduate and a consultant pathologist in his father’s department, who possesses them all. Biggart emerges as a man of wide culture and of deep sensitivities, and of wit and humour, a sentimental man with a wide romantic streak who enjoyed nothing better than an evening of quiet domesticity, reading and re-reading the English classical canon, listening to classical music, meditating on the wise words of the physician philosopher Sir William Osler and contemplating the progress of medicine from classical times: it was not chance but design that his valedictory Address to the Ulster Medical Society was entitled ‘Cnidos v Cos’, the respective centres of the two major strands of classical medical theory and practice. It was this romanticism allied to his instincts for control which explain his strong paternalistic attitude to the medical services in Northern Ireland, especially to the medical school which was widely seen as his creation.
Biggart, who married Isobel Gibson of Belfast at Knock Presbyterian Church in September 1934, died suddenly of a heart attack in the foyer of Brown’s Hotel in Piccadilly, London, on his way to attend a meeting of the General Medical Council.
His portrait by John Turner hangs in the Great Hall of Queen's University, Belfast.
|Born:||17 November 1905|
|Died:||21 May 1979|
Biggart, J.H. Pathology of the Nervous System. 1st edition 1936, reprinted 1940, 2nd edition 1949, 3rd edition 1961. Edinburgh: E & S Livingstone
Biggart, J.H. ‘Cnidos v Cos: Presidential Address to the Ulster Medical Society’, Ulster Medical Journal, 1972 vol, 41 (1); pp. 1-9
Biggart, Denis. John Henry Biggart. Pathologist, Professor and Dean of Medical Faculty, Queen’s University, Belfast. Belfast: Ulster Historical Foundation, 2012
Weaver, J.A. ‘John Henry Biggart, 1905-1979. A portrait in respect and affection’, Ulster Medical Journal, 1985 vol. 54 (1); pp. 1-19
© 2023 Ulster History Circle