Robert Wallace (“Robin”) Harland was born just a short walk from the Queens University Belfast, an institution that was to play a central part in his life. Educated at Fane Street Public Elementary School and Methodist College Belfast, he then undertook undergraduate medical studies at Queens University. After completing house officer posts at Belfast’s Royal Victoria Hospital, he worked as a locum GP in Durham before returning to Belfast, to the Royal Maternity Hospital, in 1950, where he met and wooed his future wife, May. An invitation to return to Durham as a full time GP partner in late 1950 led to a 20 year career in a dispensing practice, disrupted only by three years of military service as regimental medical officer to the Royal Tank Regiment in Germany.
It was during his time as a GP in Durham that Robin first developed an interest in student health and sports medicine, teaching health education and first aid to student teachers at the College of the Venerable Bede. When presented with the opportunity to return to his alma mater as senior medical officer in 1970, a time of increasing civil unrest in Northern Ireland, Robin reassured his wife and young family that “it would all be over by Christmas.” How wrong this prediction proved to be, and his entire career at Queens until retirement in 1991 was played out against the backdrop of the Troubles.
Robin’s career at Queens was remarkable for his contribution to both the academic and the pastoral life of the university. He established an injuries clinic for the university sports clubs and each day would see a long queue developing outside his office before morning surgery. Such was his contribution to successive sporting teams that he was subsequently elected president of the QUB Rugby Club and a life member of the QUB Gaelic Football Club—surely a unique achievement, given the particular politics of Northern Ireland. His advocacy of sports medicine resulted in its introduction to the undergraduate medical curriculum at Queens long before its recognition as a medical specialty. He was selected as medical officer to the NI Commonwealth Games Council and attended five successive games between 1978 and 1994. He was elected a foundation fellow of the Irish Faculty of Sport and Exercise Medicine in 2002 and the UK Faculty of Sport and Exercise Medicine in 2006. His enormous contribution to the development of the specialty was further recognised by the award of an OBE in 2009.
Robin retired from the university health service in 1991 but retained close links with the university and served on the senate between 1992 and 2001. His unstinting contribution to Queens was recognised in 2002 by the award of an honorary doctorate. Not content to rest on his laurels he finally became a “proper doctor” in 2003, with the award of PhD for his thesis entitled “The history of the teaching of the specialty of general practice in Northern Ireland 1920-1990.” This earned Robin the nickname “Dr cubed,” until, on receiving his OBE, one of his sons suggested that this should be changed to “OBE one,” after the character in the Star Wars films, highlighting that he may possess three doctor titles but only one OBE. His academic achievements did not end there, and he became the first recipient of the RCGP/Society of Apothecaries Rose Prize at the age of 79, for an essay entitled “Throwing light in dark places: GP education in Northern Ireland 1920-1990—a study of the use and misuse of power.
Each year, Queen’s fourth year medical students nominate a GP Tutor for the Robin Harland Prize for Excellence in Teaching.