Obituary: Dr Robin Harland OBE

Dr Robin Harland OBE: Senior Medical Officer, Queen’s University Belfast, 1970 – 1991, Sport and Exercise Medicine pioneer and Foundation Fellows at the Faculty of Sport and Exercise Medicine.

Born 1926, Queen’s University Belfast 1948, died 17th November 2012 after a prolonged illness.

Robert Wallace (Robin) Harland was born on 7th March 1926 just a short walk from the Queen’s University Belfast, an institution which was to play a central part in his life. Educated at Fane Street Public Elementary School and Methodist College Belfast, he then undertook undergraduate medical studies at Queen’s University, graduating in December 1948. After completing House Officer posts at The Royal Victoria Hospital Belfast he worked as a locum GP in Durham before returning to the Royal Maternity Hospital Belfast in 1950 where he met and wooed his future wife May. An invitation to return to Durham as a full time GP partner in late 1950 led to a twenty year career in a dispensing practice, disrupted only by three years of military service as RMO to the Royal Tank Regiment in Germany.

It was during his time as a GP in Durham that Robin first developed an interest in student health and sports medicine, teaching Health Education and First Aid to student teachers at The College of the Venerable Bede. He became a Member of the Royal College of General Practitioners in 1963 (FRCGP 1979). When presented with the opportunity to return to his Alma Mater as Senior Medical Officer in 1970, a time of increasing civil unrest in Northern Ireland, Robin reassured his wife and young family that ‘it would all be over by Christmas’. How wrong this prediction proved to be, and his entire career at Queen’s until retirement in 1991 was played out against the backdrop of ‘The Troubles’.

Robin’s career at Queen’s was remarkable for his contribution to both the academic and pastoral life of the university. He established an injuries clinic for the university sports clubs and each day would see a long queue developing outside his office before morning surgery. Such was his contribution to successive sporting teams that he was subsequently elected President of the QUB Rugby Club and a Life Member of the QUB Gaelic Football Club – surely a unique achievement given the particular politics of Northern Ireland! His advocacy of Sports Medicine resulted in its introduction to the undergraduate medical curriculum at Queen’s long before its recognition as a medical specialty. He was selected as MO to the NI Commonwealth Games Council and attended five successive games between 1978 and 1994. He was elected a Foundation Fellow of the Irish Faculty of Sport and Exercise Medicine in 2002 and the UK Faculty of Sport and Exercise Medicine in 2006. His enormous contribution to the development of the specialty was further recognised by the award of an OBE in 2009.

Robin retired from the University Health Service in 1991 but retained close links with the university and served on Senate between 1992 and 2001. His unstinting contribution to Queen’s was recognised in 2002 by the award of an honorary doctorate. Not content to rest on his laurels he finally became a ‘proper doctor’ in 2003 with the award of PhD for his thesis entitled ‘The history of the teaching of the specialty of General Practice in Northern Ireland 1920 – 1990’. This earned Robin the nickname ‘Dr cubed’, until on receiving his OBE one of his sons suggested that this should be changed to ‘OBE one’ after the character in Star Wars, highlighting that he may possess three doctor titles but only one OBE! His academic achievements did not end there and he became the first recipient of the RCGP / Society of Apothecaries Rose Prize at the age of 79 for an essay entitled ‘Throwing Light in Dark Places: GP Education in Northern Ireland 1920-1990 – A Study of the Use and Misuse of Power’

Robin suffered many personal difficulties in his life, including the untimely deaths of his wife May in 1985 and his son Dermod in 1997. He underwent successful treatment for bowel cancer in 1996 and became a host of considerable prowess, delighting in throwing dinner parties which inevitably ended with his guests gathering in the music room of his house to be entertained by his immensely talented son Paddy. His later years were blighted by ill health, particularly a slowly progressive neurological disorder labelled ‘Idiopathic Axonal Atrophy’ which caused muscular weakness resulting in walking difficulties and eventually problems with speech and swallowing. Throughout this slow decline Robin remained unfailingly cheerful and mentally alert, often pulling up visitors who mistook his inability to verbalise his thoughts for impending senility through his ‘Stephen Hawkins’ touch activated voice box. As his good friend and former President of Ireland Mary McAleese said of him:

‘… a man of many sorrows who never succumbed to self pity but rather galvanised his mighty spirit, put on his best brightest jacket and hit the world running’.

Robin died on 17th November 2012 and will be sadly missed by his four sons (Wallace, Paddy, David and Simon) and by his many colleagues and friends.

Michael Cullen

Consultant in Sport and Exercise Medicine, Belfast