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Professor Harry Keen (1925-2013)

The medical world pays tribute to campaigning doctor and defender of the NHS

Mark Gould

Monday, 15 April 2013

Professor Harry Keen, one of the world's most highly regarded diabetes specialists, who was also a staunch defender of the NHS, has died, it has been announced today. Professor Keen was 87 and was “an exceptional” research scientist who helped to shape the understanding of both type 1 and type 2 diabetes. He was also instrumental in securing the St Vincent Declaration - a watershed moment in mobilising governments across the world to recognise the growing threat of diabetes.

Prof Keen qualified at St Mary’s Hospital Medical School, London, on 5 July 1948, the same day that the NHS was established; it marked the start of his lifelong love of the NHS. In the 1980s he lead a High Court challenge against Health Secretary Kenneth Clarke for spending millions of pounds on preparations for an internal market before the relevant legislation had become law. As founder and president of the NHS Support Federation, he was until very recently an active campaigner against recent NHS changes. He even appeared in the new Ken Loach documentary, The Spirit of ’45 about the founding of the NHS.

After service in the Royal Army Medical Corps, he worked in the Professional Medical Unit at St Mary’s until 1953, when he became senior clinical assistant at the Diabetic Department at King’s College Hospital.

He went on to become Professor of Human Metabolism at Guy's Hospital Medical School, and following retirement he became Professor Emeritus at Guy’s Hospital Campus of King’s College London School of Medicine. He was an Honorary President of the International Diabetes Federation and was heavily involved with a number of other diabetes organisations and charities.

His body of work included the highly influential Bedford Survey in the 1960s. Notions of diabetes and its complications in that decade were, in Harry’s words, “pretty primitive”. His survey, screening the whole adult population of Bedford for undiagnosed diabetes, helped scientists to grasp the full significance of blood glucose levels in relation to type 1 and type 2.

He was also a pioneer of insulin pump therapy, trialling an early pump device on a patient, Winifred Vincent, and seeing major improvements in her blood glucose control.

Sir George Alberti, the former president of the Royal College of Physicians, who worked with and knew Prof Keen for 40 years, remembers him as a “truly remarkable individual”. “His contribution to world diabetes was enormous and his activities touched and improved the lives of countless people with diabetes world-wide,” said Alberti.

Barbara Young, chief executive of Diabetes UK, said: “Harry was a fine clinician and researcher, a stalwart supporter and inspiration to us all at Diabetes UK and one of the great defenders of a first-class NHS open to all on equal terms.” His colleague Professor Giancarlo Viberti remembered him as “a generous and compassionate man – one of the most inclusive, non-discriminatory people I have ever met, a real force for scientific and social progress.”

Karen Addington, the chief executive of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation said: "I would like to convey our condolences to Professor Keen’s family. Harry was a truly great clinician and researcher. His work in the diabetes field, examining how we can prevent, treat and eventually cure type 1, is deserving of deep admiration. On a personal level I had a huge amount of respect for Harry. He will be greatly missed.”

Anne-Marie Felton, President of the Federation of European Nurses in Diabetes and its chair Deirdre Kyne-Grzebalski said his advocacy in the cause of diabetes research, education and care is without parallel.

"We nurses will miss a true champion and we acknowledge the privilege so many of us had in knowing him and working with him in the NGO world."

Prof Keen's companion for 60 years was his wife, Anna, known as “Nan”, who was the sister of the left-wing intellectual Ralph Miliband.

Picture: courtesy of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation

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