Harris, Samuel Henry

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MB 1906 MSurgery 1906 MD 1914

Samuel Henry (Harry) Harris was the first Honorary urologist to the newly established department of urology at Lewisham Hospital, making him the first full-time urological specialist in Australia.1

The major university teaching hospitals were the crucibles of change in Australasian surgery. However, Urology as a specialty in Australasia did not begin in any of these high-profile hospitals. In 1914, Harry was appointed as Urologist to Lewisham Hospital in Sydney, a Catholic hospital run by the nuns of the Little Company of Mary. Although Harry died before the first meeting of the Urological Society of Australasia, he was a vital figure in the events leading to its formation. Harry was the first full-time specialist urologist in Australasia and the first Australasian urologist to achieve an international reputation for his work.

It is difficult through all the added information provided by hindsight to assess the significance of Harry’s example. He was not only a pioneer in the specialty of urology but also a highly creative surgeon. Sydney, the city in which he worked al his life, became the most important centre in the early development of Australasian urology, and at least a part of the early dominance of Sydney must be attributed to the example set by Harry.

Harry was born and educated in Sydney and after graduation as Bachelor of Medicine and Master of Surgery in 1906, he spent a year as a Resident Medical Officer at Sydney Hospital. He then went into General Practice in the Sydney suburb of Enmore.

Harry came to urology via gynaecology, buying his first cystoscopes to study pyelitis and hydronephrosis and hydroureter of pregnancy. His thesis for his Doctor of Medicine in 1914 was on ‘Ureteral catheterisation in obstetrics’.

In 1914, Harry was appointed Honorary Urologist to the new department of urology at Lewisham Hospital. Almost at once he turned his attention from female urology to the prostate, publishing on the subject in 1916, 1917 and 1921. In 1922, he published a series of 146 operations using the Freyer technique of suprapubic prostatectomy with a mortality rate of 3.4 per cent. This was lower than the 5.4 per cent reported by Freyer in 1920 on a series of 1625 operations. Elsewhere, versions of the Freyer technique were reported to have much higher mortality rates, as for example of 9.9 per cent at St Peter’s Hospital, and sometimes in excess of 20 per cent when performed by general surgeons.

In 1927, Harry published his revised version of the Freyer technique and in 1928, described his ‘Prostatectomy with compete closure’. Harry’s mortality rate for his own operation was 2.8 per cent, the lowest at the time and for many years afterwards, for any method of open prostatectomy. Possibly surgeons elsewhere disbelieved the figures. Certainly the technique was slow to be adopted outside Australasia until Harry’s trip to Britain and Europe in 1935 to 1936. On that tour he demonstrated his operation in London, Edinburgh and Vienna, and during the following few years, the technique was adopted in Britain and Europe as well as in Australasia.

There has been some speculation as to the reasons for Harry’s low mortality rates, especially as other surgeons were not always as successful with the Harris prostatectomy. In his obituary of Harry in the British Medical Journal, Clifford Morson described his as a ‘brilliant craftsman’. In a speech at the RACS sir Gordon Gordon-Taylor recalled ‘the gentle touch of his fingers coaxing the prostate from its bed’. Besides being a skilled and gentle surgeon, Harry was strict in his adherence to asepsis: Any visiting surgeon, who was seen to put his hands in the pockets of his street clothes underneath his gown, had his gown pinned together at the back to prevent any repetition of this possible source of contamination.

Leonard Murphy, who made a particular study of Harry, noted that:

[Harry] was a specialist urologist working almost exclusively in one hospital with a very experienced and unchanging staff. Such favourable conditions were very rare at a time when prostatectomy was still regarded as part of the repertoire of a general surgeon.

Harry published 37 papers on urology and was on the editorial boards of not only The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Surgery but also The British Journal of Surgery. He was a Foundation Fellow of the RACS, a Member of the International Society of Urology, and would have been Foundation President of the Urological Society of Australasia, had he not died in December 1936. The inaugural meeting of the Society took place the following month.[1]

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Citation: Mellor, Lise (2008) Harris, Samuel Henry. Faculty of Medicine Online Museum and Archive, University of Sydney.

An alternate version appears in: Mellor, L. 150 Years, 150 Firsts: The People of the Faculty of Medicine (2006) Sydney, Sydney University Press.