Lieutenant Colonel Lawrence Whitaker Harrison

Biography of Lieutenant Colonel Lawrence Whitaker Harrison

Glasgow medical graduate Lawrence Whitaker Harrison became the ‘father of the Venereal Diseases Services’. He was born on 2nd April 1876 in Haslingden, Lancashire, the youngest son of Jonathan and Margaret Harrison. His father was a physician. Lawrence chose to study Medicine at Glasgow after completing his school education at Manchester Grammar. He matriculated in 1892. His passage through medical school was orderly and smooth. Each year he gained at least one Merit, almost always a Second Class except for Clinical Surgery, where he took a First Class Certificate in the session 1896-1897. It was an enviable undergraduate record and when he graduated, on 22nd July 1897, it was with good first-time passes in all his professional exams and a score that put him closer to the top than the middle of his year.

As a student he had already taken an interest in the army, as a Private in the Volunteer Medical Staff Corps. After graduating, he enlisted in the Army Medical Services, and as a young Medical Officer he saw action in South Africa. He was first Mentioned in Despatches (MID) during that campaign. In 1903 he was posted to India, where he began to take an interest in venereal diseases. In March 1905 he returned to London, got married to Mabel, and returned to India with her to begin raising a family of two daughters and two sons. Three years later he returned to England to take up a post first in military medicine at Millbank and in 1909, as a pathologist at Rochester Row Military Hospital. By the time the First World War began, he had already gained a lot of experience in the use of the drug Salvarson, for the treatment of Syphilis and had made a useful modification to the Wasserman test.

He was posted to France and found his previous experience of great interest to the Army. He was put in charge of a hospital in Le Havre and worked hard to find ways of controlling the spread of venereal diseases, a task made more difficult by the shortage of Salvarson, which was manufactured by the Germans. So important was his work that in 1916 he returned to London as adviser to the War Office on venereal diseases. His distinguished service was recognised in many ways - he was promoted to the rank of Colonel, twice Mentioned in Despatches (MID), awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) in 1915, and appointed, in 1917, as Honorary Physician to the King.

Lawrence Harrison’s career after the war was equally distinguished. In turn he was a Lecturer in Venereal Diseases at the University of Edinburgh, moving on to become Director of Venereal Diseases at St Thomas’s London, a post that he combined with his work as an adviser to the Ministry of Health. He was the author of three textbooks and numerous articles, and was joint editor of the British Journal of Venereal Diseases. He was a fearless and passionate fighter for his speciality, and was not always popular. As a colleague wrote on his death, he liked hierarchical structures and had ‘little faith in the post-war concept of professional egalitarianism’. His first concern was for his patients and for getting things done. He had, it was said, a ‘dry sense of humour and a kindliness which he did his best, quite unsuccessfully, to hide’. After his retirement from the Ministry in 1946 he was awarded the Companion of the Order of the Bath (CB). Colonel Harrison died on 9th May 1964.



Lieutenant Colonel Lawrence Whitaker Harrison
Rank: Lieutenant Colonel
Regiment: Royal Army Medical Corps
Degree: MB ChB
Awards: DSO, Mentioned in Despatches
Comments: N/A
Note/Press Clipping: N/A
Photo ID: N/A


University of Glasgow Registry, Faculty and General Council Records

Obituary: The College Courant, Vol 17 No 33, 1964, p68

Obituary British Journal of Venereal Diseases, 1964, 40, 228

Biography: Philippa Levine, Lawrence Whitaker (1876-1964), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004)

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