Designatory Letters: 
MB Edin 1939, MRCP Edin 1952, FRCPsych 1971, FRCP Edin 1958

Based on an obituary in the Scotsman and contributed by Morag Williams

The death of Dr James Harper has robbed Scotland of one of the most successful and distinguished psychiatrists of his generation less than two months after the celebrations associated with his 90th birthday.

Born: in Dumfriesshire, James Harper was one of two boys and a girl born to a farming father and a schoolteacher mother. At the age of nine, James moved with his family to the Channel Islands. Academic success attended him throughout his schooling and his later university studies.

He graduated in medicine from Edinburgh University in 1939, taking the prize in his year for anatomy. There followed appointments as house physician at Ayr County Hospital and assistant physician at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital.

At this time exciting interventionist developments were taking place in psychiatry. Dr Harper recounted how, on one occasion, with his superior’s approval, he administered electro-convulsive therapy (ECT) to a deeply depressed patient, one of the first applications in Scotland. Initially it seemed the patiend might not regain consciousness. Greatly disturbed, Dr Harper imagined the worst and considered he would be struck off before his career had begun. Returning to the patient’s bedside some time later, though he found her sitting up eating a hearty meal. Years later he encountered Meduna of Budapest, the pioneer, and discovered that he had had the same experience with his first case.

Wartime service in the RAF in Bridtain, Libya, Tunisia and Italy followed in the course of which he received a an MBE and the rank of squadron leader. A later association with the RAF came with his appointment as civil consultant in psychiatry from 1967-75. After registrarships in London, in neurology at the National Hospital and in psychiatry at the Maudsley. He was head-hunted to join the staff of Crichton Royal Hospital, where he rose through the ranks from assistant physician, to consultant physician, to deputy physician superintendent and finally to physician superintendent 1957-66.

He is remembered as a firm, fair, genial and understanding colleague, administrator and above all, chief, who allowed his staff freedom to develop their own initiatives. On arrival at Chrichton Royal, James met a young psychiatric social worker, Marie Hodgson, also on the staff. The family has suggested that her petrol allowance might have been the initial lure. Marie claims that James “wooed her with words and poetry”. They were married in June 1948. As they left for their honeymoon, they were employees of the Crichton Board of Direction; they returned as employees of the National Health Service, formed on 5 July.

Dr Harper’s work at Crichton was associated with moves to open wards hitherto locked; the establishment of specialist geriatric units in which a staff team would be involved in case studies; allowing patients maximum freedom to express their individuality; and encouraging maximum support and communication with the wider community. In 1966 he was appointed medical director at St Andrews Hospital, Northampton, which he served for nine years. His retirement was cut short by the invitation to become a Lord Chancellor’s medical visitor, which entailed visiting discharged patients throughout the country. He held this position for three years until December 1978.

During his long and distinguished career he was a member of the Scottish Health Services Council, 1965-8; member of the Scottish Medical Advisory Committee, 1965-8; member of the home Office Advisory Board on Restricted Patients, 1973-84’ chairman of the Dumfries and Galloway division of the British Medical Association, 1965-6 and Chairman of a subcommittee formed to consider the forensic psychiatric services in Scotlan
Died: the report being published as a White Paper in 1969. His pastimes included hill-walking and sailing, reading, history of medicine, garden, natural history and antiquarian interests.

He is survived by Marie, as well as 18 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, all of whom gave great pleasure to a man who found a formula, all too-rare of combining a highly successful career with a happy and successful family life.