William Harkness

1955 - 2021

We are deeply saddened by the passing of William Harkness, one of the most outstanding paediatric neurosurgeons of our generation. A caring clinician and gifted surgeon, visionary leader, loyal friend and devoted family man, William left an indelible impression on the specialty and the many people whose lives he touched.

William was educated at Eton School and qualified in medicine in 1979, at the University of Birmingham. His neurosurgical training commenced at the Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford and later continued in Birmingham. Upon completion of his specialist training in 1991, he was appointed as a consultant neurosurgeon at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, Queen Square and Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children (GOSH), but it was the latter institution that became his professional home as he focused his career on paediatric neurosurgery.

Given the task of developing an epilepsy surgery service, William spent a year in North America undergoing training at UCLA, Seattle, Miami and Montreal. He enthusiastically embraced the multidisciplinary team approach, enabling him to establish a world-leading children’s epilepsy surgery service together with Helen Cross at GOSH. While this is where he had his greatest scientific impact, he was a consummate paediatric neurosurgeon who thought deeply and wrote on a wide range of conditions. William was known to be an exceptionally skillful surgeon, with many neurosurgical trainees citing him as one of the leading technical neurosurgeons they had worked with.

He served as clinical lead for paediatric neurosciences at GOSH and led the development of a national plan for children’s epilepsy surgery services. Throughout his career William was an ardent advocate for paediatric neurosurgery, representing the specialty in many forums including the Society of British Neurological Surgeons. He was passionate about developing the role of neurosurgical nursing, a champion of the role of clinical nurse specialists and advanced nurse practitioners within the neurosurgical team, and was instrumental in establishing their voice within the International Society of Pediatric Neurosurgeons (ISPN).

It is however as a teacher that many paediatric neurosurgeons will always remember William. He was a brilliant communicator in every way- meticulously prepared presentations were delivered with flair, and when the sun started to set he was always available to continue lively discussions with attendees late into the night. He contributed much to the ISPN. William served as scientific chair, communications chair, treasurer and ultimately president (2016-2017), embracing each role with charismatic gusto. Inspired by the insights gained through teaching around the world, he committed his presidency to building global paediatric neurosurgery.

Combining his organizational and technical skills, he worked with Jim Johnson to develop InterSurgeon, a web-based platform promoting international collaboration through linking neurosurgeons and related organisations across the world. Supported by among others, the ISPN, UAB and the G4Alliance, InterSurgeon has grown beyond neurosurgery and will be a lasting tribute to William’s vision and drive.

In addition to this clarity of purpose, William was highly principled and frank- you knew exactly where you stood with him. The phrase “larger than life” has recurred amongst the many testaments, a reflection of a friendly and gregarious personality that drew people to him and infected them with his enthusiasm. William was a wonderful friend and always great company – a true Renaissance man, his eclectic interests ranged from art and music through wine, classic cars (in particular, his trusty Aston Martin), travel and a fascination with antiques and history.

Above all else however, we remember William’s devotion to his family most vividly. His beloved wife Philippa accompanied him on most of his travels, and no conversation with him was complete without an update on the adventures of Edward, Fran, Gabi and Letitia and their growing families. We extend our sincere condolences to his family and close friends.


Graham Fieggen, Dominic Thompson and J. Helen Cross