Laureation address: Professor Eon Nigel Harris

Honorary Degree of Doctor of Law
Laureation by Professor Hugh MacDougall, Dean of Medicine

Friday 13 September 2013

Professor Harris has been the Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West Indies since his appointment in 2004. The University of the West Indies was founded following the report of the British Government Working Group chaired by Sir James Colquhoun Irvine, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of St Andrews, in 1944. Irvine continued to support and provide advice for the University of the West Indies in its early days and undergraduate students there used the scarlet gown on formal occasions. One of the student residences there is named Irvine Hall.

This is a happy coincidence and an association we would wish to rekindle and nourish at our 600th Anniversary but not the reason that we honour Nigel Harris today. He is not only an outstanding university leader but a man whose very distinguished record in medical research is widely recognised, particularly in the field of rheumatology.

Nigel Harris was born in Guyana, South America, to a family of writers. His father, Sir Wilson Harris, is a prominent Caribbean author who has lived in England for over 50 years and was knighted in 2012 for his contributions to literature. His maternal uncle (Jan Carew), sister (Denise Harris) and first cousin (Lisa St Aubin de Terán) are also well published authors of fiction.

Nigel’s early schooling was at Queen’s College, Guyana. Preferring medical science to fiction, Nigel Harris proceeded in 1965 to Howard University, Washington DC, graduating with Honours in Chemistry, Magna Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa. He then went on to a fellowship at Yale University where he graduated with a Masters degree in Biochemistry. He subsequently went on to study Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania graduating MD in 1977 Alpha Omega Alpha.

His internship was at the University Hospital of the West Indies where he became chief resident and graduated Doctor of Medicine. 

In 1983 he came to a Wellcome Fellowship in the Rheumatology Unit at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School at the Hammersmith Hospital in London. At that time the Hammersmith was the elite medical research institute in the United Kingdom and probably in the world, headed by a graduate of this University. Thus began his life’s major work in the field of systemic lupus erythematosus.

In 1983 this disease was not well understood. It is a multisystem disease in which autoantibodies and immune complexes may cause cellular and tissue damage. It is a disease that is often elusive and difficult to diagnose with many tissues and organs potentially affected. It is prevalent in women particularly between 25-35 years of age and some studies show that Afro-Caribbean women are even more commonly affected. Along with Doctors Aziz Gharavi and Graham Hughes in London he defined an associated disorder, the antiphospholipid syndrome, major features of which are blood clotting and pregnancy losses. They devised a diagnostic test for this disorder (the anticardiolipin test). He developed world-wide standards for this test often referred to as the ‘Harris Standards’.

He has published over 150 papers, editorial reviews and chapters in the field of rheumatology. He and his co-workers shared the Ciba-Geigy Prize (awarded by the International League Against Rheumatism) for this work in 1990. Over the years he has been awarded many honours including the Centennial Award of the National Medical Association (in the USA) and the Martin Luther King International Award and his elevation from the Dean of Medicine position at Morehouse School of Medicine, Atlanta, back to the University of the West Indies to be head of that university is perhaps not unexpected. He now also holds the prestigious and important position of Chairman of the Association of Commonwealth Universities and President of the Association of Caribbean Universities and Institutes (UNICA). 

The University of the West Indies serves 14 separate countries through 3 campuses in Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados. It is a huge operation serving 16 countries across more than 1 million square miles of the Caribbean Sea. More than 2,000 miles separate Belize in the West from Trinidad and Tobago in the South-East. It is said that only two things really bind the English speaking islands together – one is the West Indies cricket team (which has thrashed all comers in years gone by) and the other is the University of the West Indies.

Since coming to the University of the West Indies, Nigel has focused on programmes that will enhance contributions of the University to Caribbean Government and strengthen services of the University to its stakeholders. Enhancement of alumni relations has also been a priority. A particular area of interest has been re-structuring the University’s presence in the 12 Caribbean countries that contribute financially but have no campuses of their own (he refers to them as the “UWI-12”). In 2008, he led the creation of a fourth virtual Open Campus designed to deliver education at a distance to students in all 16 contributing countries without access to the 3 residential campuses, which are in Jamaica (Mona), Trinidad and Tobago (St Augustine) and Barbados (Cave Hill). During his tenure, the Regional University’s enrolment has grown from about 24,000 to in excess of 50,000 students. This extraordinary explosion in higher education in the Caribbean has been achieved under his leadership and with his vision.