Edward Frank Harrison – a pharmacy war hero

by Matthew Johnston, RPS Museum

If asked to list influential figures in the history of the First World War, few would probably know the name of Edward Frank Harrison. But it was Harrison who was responsible for saving the lives of thousands of Allied soldiers thanks to his work to combat the threat of chemical warfare.

Born in 1869, Harrison began his career as an apprentice pharmacist in North London aged 14. He was awarded the Pharmaceutical Society’s Jacob Bell Scholarship and won prizes in the subjects of chemistry, botany, and materia medica. He passed both the Minor and Major examinations at the Society’s School of Pharmacy and registered as a pharmacist in 1891.

At the age of 47, Harrison – by now a Fellow of the Institute of Chemistry – joined the Army (possibly lying about his age to do so) and was soon transferred to the Royal Engineers as a Corporal following a call for chemists to help in the fight against gas attacks. Promoted to Lieutenant, he led the team responsible for developing and manufacturing equipment that would protect troops from chemicals. It needed to be quick to produce, and not impact on a soldier’s ability to fight. The result in 1916 was the small box respirator, a protective mask connected to a filter box held in a haversack on the soldier’s chest. The first sophisticated gas mask.

Harrison was lauded for his devotion to duty, even in the midst of personal tragedy. His eldest son was killed during the Battle of the Somme in July 1916, aged just 19. Sadly, his work also took its toll on his own health. Overwork and exposure to poisonous gases during experiments for the respirator are thought to have lowered his immunity, and, following complications relating to influenza, he died just a week before the end of the war on 4 November 1918.

In recognition of the lives he saved with his respirator, he was made an Officer of the French Légion d’honneur, and a Member of the Order of St Maurice and St Lazarus of Italy. He was buried on 8 November 1918 with full military honours. In a letter to Harrison’s widow, Winston Churchill (then Minister of Munitions) wrote that he had been about to be promoted to Brigadier General in charge of chemical warfare.

The Pharmaceutical Society also honoured Harrison in its own way. In 1921 an alabaster memorial plaque was unveiled in the Examination Hall at Bloomsbury Square, and a Harrison Medal was set up to recognise scientists who have made an outstanding contribution to pharmaceutical science. The most recent recipient was Professor Molly Stevens in 2017 for her work on regenerative medicine, tissue engineering and nanotechnology.

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