Thursday, 2 April 2009

Robert 'Humphrey' Havard - Medical 'Inkling'

Charlton, BG. Reflections on a scientific paper of 1926 by the medical ‘Inkling’ Robert Emlyn ‘Humphrey’ Havard (1901–1985). Medical Hypotheses. 2009; Volume 72: Pages 619-620


Robert Emlyn Havard (1901–1985; general practitioner and sometimes medical scientist) was the only non-literary member of the Inklings – a1930s and 1940s Oxford University club which included Lewis and Tolkien. Despite spending most of his time in family medicine, Havard was a productive medical scientist. While still a student at Cambridge University, Havard co-authored an influential study published in the Journal of Physiology of 1926 entitled ‘The influence of exercise on the inorganic phosphates in the blood and urine’. The style and structure of this paper provides a charming window into the elite medical science of the 1920s.
Article Outline

Havard: The medical Inkling

The Inklings was a group of friends and colleagues who gathered around Lewis in Oxford University during the 1930s and 1940s [1]. The group would meet weekly after dinner in the evening at Lewis’s rooms in Magdalen College to read works-in-progress, and more informally to converse in the Eagle and Child (‘Bird and Baby’) pub in St Giles.

Lewis is now world famous as author of the Narnia fairy stories, and was probably the greatest lay Christian writer of the 20th century. The other world famous Inkling was Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Charles Williams the novelist, poet and theologian was a later member. Other well-known Inklings included the philosopher Owen Barfield, Nevill Coghill – who became known as a Shakespearian director and published the best known modern English version of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the ‘angry young man’ novelist and literary scholar John Wain, and the biographer Lord David Cecil. Lewis’s brother Warren (‘Warnie’) was usually in attendance: he was a popular historian of the France of Louis XIV. Tolkien’s youngest son Christopher later joined, and is now the only surviving Inkling – Christopher Tolkien is the most important scholar of his father’s work.

In a recent book on the Inklings, The company they kept [2], Diana Pavlac Glyer notes that almost all of the regular members of the group were active authors – producing academic books, essays, novels, stories, plays and poems. The Inklings essentially functioned as a writers’ group that provided mutual encouragement, criticism and editorial assistance. Superficially at least, the odd-man-out was Robert Emlyn Havard (1901–1985), who was a general practitioner and sometimes medical scientist and the family physician for both Lewis and Tolkien.

Havard appears in fictional form as the somnolent but shrewd character ‘Dolbear’ in Tolkien’s posthumously published story The Notion Club papers [3]; and Lewis’s Prince Caspian is dedicated to Havard’s daughter [4]. He had various nicknames bestowed on him by the group including ‘Humphrey’, ‘the Red Admiral’ (due to a beard grown while in the navy) and UQ – which stood for the ‘Useless Quack’. Indeed, in his sneering and pervasively unreliable biography of Lewis, Havard is depicted by AN Wilson as something of a buffoon [5].

This was far from the case, as can be seen from Havard’s early career as a medical scientist. The most complete account of Havard’s life so-far is by Walter Hooper in his Lewis: a companion and guide [6]. Havard began by taking a first class degree in chemistry at Keble College, Oxford then studying medicine at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge and Guy’s Hospital in London to graduate with the Oxford medical degree of BM BCh in 1927. He took an Oxford DM (Doctor of Medicine) in 1934 while working at Leeds University in the Biochemistry Department, and in the same year returned to Oxford as a research fellow in The Queen’s College, and around this time became a general practitioner.

Despite spending most of his time in general medical practice, Havard was a productive medical scientist with his name on more than two dozen papers published in first rank journals such as Nature, the Lancet, Biochemical Journal and the Journal of Physiology. He had three spells of research and publication – the first mainly to do with human biochemistry during the mid 1920s while he was still a medical student; a second studying more clinical aspects of biochemistry from the early 1930s as a medical graduate doing a doctorate in Leeds and Oxford, and the third from the early 1940s when working on anti-malarial drugs while an above-conscription-age volunteer for military service during world war two [2].

Exercise, phosphates and fun

During his days as a medical undergraduate in Cambridge, Havard co-authored (with George Adam Reay) an influential study published in the Journal of Physiology of 1926 entitled ’The influence of exercise on the inorganic phosphates in the blood and urine’. It was this amiable paper, with its depictions of a time when doing science was akin to an undergraduate ‘jape’, that provoked the following reflections.

This paper was certainly not earth-shattering, nonetheless seems to have been one of the most cited of that year’s volume of J. Physiol. There are currently 13 references to be found on the Google Scholar database ( (quite a lot for such an old paper) with the most recent reference in 1971.

The style and structure provides a charming window onto the very different science of the early 1920s; with its un-translated ‘varsity’ slang, ‘clubby’ style of referencing which lists only authors surnames without initials (in 1926 the membership of the Physiological Society was less than 400 [7]) and delightful vignettes concerning the conduct of experiments.

One striking feature is that the experimental methodology reported in the paper is described as having changed significantly throughout the period of the experiment, and results are given both for before and after these trial-and-error modifications. A modern scientific paper would surely omit the earlier failed attempts. Indeed, the style of this article is less like a modern paper than a slice of laboratory life. The impression is that these scientific pioneers wanted to share not just their results, but the nuts and bolts of how results were generated.

Havard and Reay describe how ‘the exercise took the form of the subject running up and down the laboratory stairs, 40 ft in height, until he was exhausted’ during and after which many one cubic centimetre blood samples were taken from the subject’s finger in order to measure the phosphate etc. – which seems likely to have been a painful procedure. However, one of the main subjects listed was ‘R.E.H.’ himself, so he could not be accused of inflicting on others something he avoided himself.

Indeed, all the experimental subjects are listed by their initials, and presumably therefore identifiable by those ‘in the know’ (so, none of our present-day worries about ‘confidentiality’ are in evidence). In one of the tables we are told that that subjects include G.B. described as ‘A rowing man’, W.E.T. a ‘Rugby “Blue”’ (a ‘Blue’ was awarded to Oxford undergraduates for competing at the highest level of university sport), H.K.B.O. a ‘Running “Blue”’, E.H.F a ‘Sprinter’; and again Havard himself who is, by contrast to these athletes, only ‘Partly trained’.

Collecting urine samples was a problem – we are informed that H.K.B.O. (despite – or maybe because? – of being a Running Blue) was unable to produce a urine sample for 7 min after his exercise. In another experiment R.H.B (‘Running’) was ‘as exhausted and distressed as any of the untrained subjects’ – which must have been rather humiliating for him. But then R.H.B seems not to have been a Blue.

Three women were included as subjects. Miss (I assume it was a Miss) M.M. did exercise which was rather disdainfully dismissed as ‘not very vigorous’; Miss B.E.H. managed ‘more vigorous’ exercise; while the Amazonian Miss C.E.L. was able to perform ‘very vigorous’ exercise – unfortunately however after these exertions she was depicted as ‘very exhausted’. Havard noted, with obvious regret, that the women produced ‘anomalous results’ which were ‘difficult to account for’.

In conclusion the authors reported that phosphate goes up a little then markedly down on exercise, and that trained men show less of these exercise-induced changes in their blood inorganic phosphate.

A snapshot from a lost era

My interest in this paper was stimulated because it presents in microcosm a snapshot of science from an all-but lost era of the ‘invisible college’ of collaborating and competing researchers who knew each other well-enough to dispense with formalities, and whose world was essentially private despite publication in widely circulated journals [8]. To the hard-nosed professional modern scientist, such early 20th century papers look eccentric and idiosyncratic. The paper is indeed ‘amateur’, but mostly in a desirable sense of describing science as an avocation done for intrinsic reasons and the esteem of peers, rather than a vocation rewarded by a secure income and managerial power.

But much more important and striking is the total absence of exaggeration, hype, or spin: the paper’s openness, candour – in a word honesty. This marks the biggest and most dismaying contrast between publications of the science of 80 years ago and of modern science. There has indeed been a loss of innocence, collegiality and fun; but a loss of unvarnished truthfulness is the most serious change against current practice [9].

I have said that Havard was not himself a writer, but on the evidence of this early article, Havard was an unusually vivid scientific author from his mid-twenties. Indeed he wrote essays and journalistic reviews dating back to his student days and continuing through into the 1950s. Furthermore, Havard contributed posthumous memoirs of both Lewis [10] and Tolkien [11].

All of which helps explain why, despite not being a literary man, ‘Humphrey’s’ presence at the Inklings meetings was so highly valued.


I am grateful to Robert Havard’s eldest son John, who kindly gave me a list of some of his father’s publications, and provided fascinating background information by means of e-mail and telephone conversations. John Havard’s brother Mark (i.e. RE Havard’s second son) also corresponded, and reminded me that the doctor in CS Lewis’s 1943 novel Perelandra was named ‘Humphrey’.

[1] H. Carpenter, The inklings, George Allen and Unwin, London (1981).

[2] D.P. Glyer, The company they keep: CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien and writers in community, Kent State University Press, Kent, Ohio (2007).

[3] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Notion Club papers, Morgoth’s ring: history of middle earth volume IX, HarperCollins, London (1992).

[4] C.S. Lewis, Prince Caspian, Geoffrey Bles, London (1951).

[5] A.N. Wilson, CS Lewis: A biography, Collins, London (1990).

[6] R.E. Havard and G.A. Reay, The influence of exercise on the inorganic phosphates of the blood and urine, J Physiol 61 (1926), pp. 35–48.

[7] W.F. Bynum, A short history of the physiological society 1926–1976, J Physiol 263 (1976), pp. 23–72. View Record in Scopus | Cited By in Scopus (0)

[8] T. Kealey, Sex, science and profits: how people evolved to make money, William Heinemann, London (2008).

[9] B.G. Charlton, The vital role of transcendental truth in science, Med Hypotheses 72 (2009), pp. 373–376.

[10] R.E. Havard, Philia: Jack at ease. In: T. James and C.S. Como, Editors, Lewis at the breakfast table and other reminiscences, Harvest/HBJ Book, New York (1979), pp. 215–228.

[11] R.E. Havard and J.R.R. Professor, Tolkien: a personal memoir, Mythlore 17 (1990), pp. 61–62.