Biography of George Harley
George Harley began his medical studies in Edinburgh at the age of seventeen. In 1850, whilst he was still a student at the maternity hospital, one of the expectant mothers died of a heart attack. Harley, without assistance or previous experience, successfully performed a Caesarean section and delivered a living child!
Harley received his doctorate from the University of Edinburgh in 1850 and became a resident at the Royal Infirmary. He
Harley then went abroad for further studies in France, Germany and Italy... In Paris he studied in the laboratories of Charles-Philippe Robin (1821-1885), François Verdeil, and Charles Adolphe Wurtz (1817-1884) and François Magendie (1783-1855). Following Magendie's retirement a few months later, Harley worked with hiss successor Claude Bernard (1813-1878).
Harley next spent two years in Germany. At Würzburg he worked with professor Johann Joseph von Scherer (1814-1869), a recognized authority on urine pigments who had initially questioned his findings when he worked with Wurtz, that iron was a normal constituent of urine and that there was a pigment in urine which he called urohaematin (presumably urobilinogen) which was derived from the breakdown products of the red cell. After having worked with Harley, Scherer agreed that his findings had been correct and that iron was a normal constituent in both blood and urine. Whilst there Harley worked with Rudolf Albert von Kölliker (1817-1905) in histology and met Rudolf Virchow (1821-1902).
In Heidelberg he worked in Robert Wilhelm Bunsen’s (1811-1899) laboratory, acquiring the techniques of gas analysis. His next stop was the University of Padua, but he was disappointed of the standard of the faculty and stayed only a few days before he returned to England in 1855. He then became curator of the anatomical museum at the University College and lecturer on practical physiology and histology. Soon after he published a paper which proved Heinrich Gustav Magnus’ (1802-1870) theory that respired oxygen formed a chemical combination with blood constituents (namely haemoglobin). This was at the time revolutionary research and resulted in his election as a fellow of the Royal Society.
Following the famous case in which William Palmer (1824-1856) was convicted of poisoning his friend John Parsons Cook with strychnine in 1856, Harley commenced investigations on the toxicology of this substance and developed an interest in poisons. He was the first to show that animals poisoned with strychnine could be saved by administration of the arrow poison curare.
Harley, whose name is now associated with the most prestigious address in medicine, was no success as a practitioner. During his first 12 months in practice he saw only two patients. The change came when he caught the attention of the then president of the Pathological Society
In 1856 Harley opened practice, but initially had little success, for twelve months he saw only two patients. However, in December that year at a meeting of the Pathological Society, he caught the attention of the Society's president, Sir Thomas Watson (1792-1882), who from then on used Harley as a consultant, not only in patients with liver disease, but also those with kidney trouble.
In 1859 Harley was appointed professor of medical jurisprudence at the University College. At that time he postulated that the reason why the stomach is not itself digests is because of a protective layer of alkaline mucus which is rapidly replaced. In 1861 he received the tri-annual prize of the Royal College of Surgeons for his treatise On the anatomy and physiology of the supra-renal bodies. He became a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in 1854 and in 1865 of the Royal Society.
At this time his eyes were exhausted from his work at the microscope, and he had to spend nine months in total darkness. After his convalescence he wrote a book on his experiences in the dark.
Like many of his day, Harley was interested in the unusual and sometimes extraordinary manifestations of hysteria. In 1863 he published a story of a 33 year old woman who made an extraordinarily loud noise from her vagina by expelling gas, and demonstrated by gas analysis that this was simply air which had previously sucked in by voluntary contractions of her abdominal muscles!
Apart from his medical contributions Harley wrote a number of short stories.
Harley was a strong protagonist of cremation and after a peculiar neurological problem towards the end of his life which resulted in difficulties in walking, he died suddenly. He was cremated at his own wish and buried in Woking cemetery.