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Harris, Samuel Henry (Harry) (1881–1936)

by Leonard J. T. Murphy

This article was published:

Samuel Henry (Harry) Harris (1881-1936), urological surgeon, was born on 22 August 1881 in Sydney, second son of Sydney-born parents Henry Harris, custom-house agent, and his wife Hannah, née Solomon. Always known as Harry, he was educated at Sydney Grammar School, where he was school captain in 1900, and at the University of Sydney (M.B., Ch.M., 1906), where he won a blue for cricket. He was resident medical officer at Sydney Hospital in 1906-07.

Starting general practice at Enmore, Harris was early attracted to gynaecology and was appointed to the South Sydney Women's Hospital. In 1914 his thesis 'Ureteral Catheterisation in Obstetrics' gained him his M.D. The cystoscopic and radiographic studies required for this work made him realize the challenge of the newly emerging speciality of urology. That year he was appointed honorary urologist to the Lewisham Hospital where he carried out almost all his surgery; he was also consultant urologist to the Marrickville Cottage Hospital. At the Scots Church, Sydney, he married New Zealander Isabel Alison Aitken on 15 April 1920; they lived at Double Bay.

When Harris began his work, suprapubic prostatectomy was hazardous with high mortality, except in the hands of a few experts. By 1922 his first major paper on the operation reported that he had used the accepted technique on 146 patients, with a mortality rate of 3.4 per cent. Modifying this method in 1927 he recorded 433 operations with a rate of 3.6 per cent, reduced to 2.8 per cent over the last 245 patients. His third technique was the 'Harris prostatectomy' on which his fame rests. He devised an operation of precision which, if his prerequisites of meticulous haemostasis by suture, reformation of the posterior wall of the urethra and obliteration of the prostatic cavity were achieved, would allow primary bladder closure. He designed a lighted bladder retractor and other instruments for this purpose. In 1934 his mortality rate was 2.7 per cent in 413 such operations.

These unparalleled successes aroused little interest, especially abroad, and probably were simply not believed. Harris visited Britain in 1935 to demonstrate the advantages of his technique, and had to overcome 'a definitely hostile school of opinion' which, after his demonstrations, was followed by a wave of enthusiasm. Most surgeons, however, found that they could not reproduce his success. The operation continued to be practised in Sydney, Glasgow, Auckland and Vienna.

It is apparent that Harris's technique was not an important factor in his results. The basis of his success lay primarily in his surgical skill. First gaining his patients' confidence, he closely supervised their post-operative recovery, under the care of the dedicated and experienced Nursing Sisters of the Little Company of Mary. His surgery was made easier by his expert team. Harris published many papers on various aspects of urology, usually displaying originality and his inventive mind. He was a foundation fellow of the College of Surgeons of Australasia (later Royal Australasian College of Surgeons), and a member of the International Society of Urology and the editorial committees of the British Journal of Surgery and the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Surgery. In 1936 he was involved in the transformation of the Sydney Urological Association into the Urological Society of Australasia.

Harris had returned from Britain a sick man, and he performed only a few more operations before he died of pneumonia on Christmas Day 1936 in Lewisham Hospital; he was cremated. He was survived by his wife and son, to whom he left his estate, valued for probate at £29,588. In 1968 the Urological Society of Australasia established the Harry Harris memorial oration.

Had Harris lived and continued to demonstrate that suprapubic prostatectomy could be a relatively safe operation, many lives would have been saved. With the advent of antibiotics, blood transfusion and advances in anaesthesia in the post-war years, Harris's advanced technique lost much of its importance.

Select Bibliography

  • L. J. T. Murphy, ‘Harry Harris and his contribution to suprapubic prostatectomy’, in H. Attwood and G. Kenny (eds), Festschrift for Kenneth Fitzpatrick Russell (Melb, 1978)
  • British Medical Journal, 1 (1937), p 304
  • Lancet, 1 (1937), p 412
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 1 (1937), p 522
  • Australian Catholic Historical Society Journal, 4 (1973), pt 2, p 1
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 28 Dec 1936
  • private information.

Citation details

Leonard J. T. Murphy, 'Harris, Samuel Henry (Harry) (1881–1936)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 23 September 2023.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

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