Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Frank Harrison CMG DSO: Chemist and Sanderstead’s ‘Unsung Hero’
Chemist; Lieutenant-Colonel Royal Engineers; controller of chemical warfare; Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG); Distinguished Service Order (DSO); Officer of the Légion d’honneur; Officer of the Order of St Maurice and St Lazarus.
Known as both a theoretical and a practical chemist and credited with inventing the universal gasmask used in the First World War.
Harrison’s life before the Great War
Edward Harrison was born in Camberwell, London, in 1869, and educated at the United Westminster schools. Leaving school at fourteen, he entered an apprenticeship with a north London pharmaceutical chemist, then becoming an assistant pharmacist in Croydon. He was awarded the Pharmaceutical Society Bell scholarship and studied at the School of Pharmacy.
In 1894, Harrison became a fellow of the Royal Chemical Society. He married Edith Helen Wilson and they had two sons. By 1899, he had been appointed head of the analytical department of Burroughs Wellcome and Co. where he spent the following six years. He gained a B.Sc. at London University and went into the practice of consulting and analytical chemistry. He became an analyst to the British Medical Association where he researched into the content of a variety of proprietary medicines, in an attempt to help with identifying deception within these medicines. This research produced two books, Secret Remedies: What They Cost and What They Contain, published in 1909, and More Secret Remedies: What They Cost and What They Contain, published, on behalf of the British Medical Association, in 1912. This, in turn, led to Harrison giving evidence, on behalf of the British Medical Association, to the House of Commons select committee on Patent Medicines.
Harrison and the Great War
In 1913, Harrison was living in Sanderstead, a small village in the modern-day London borough of Croydon. From 1915 to 1965 it formed a parish in the Coulsdon and Purley Urban District of Surrey. On the outbreak of war, Edward Harrison made several attempts to enlist but without success, believed to be due to his age of forty-five. He was not successful until May 1915, when he joined the 23rd Battalion, Royal Fusiliers (1st Sportsmans’), as a Private (this unit took men up to forty-five years of age, although it is believed that Harrison reduced his age to achieve entry). The first gas attack had been carried out in April 1915 when the Germans used chlorine in Belgium and whilst Harrison was waiting for his embarkation to France, the army put out a call for chemists. Harrison joined the newly-formed Royal Engineers chemists’ corps, taking a temporary commission. Harrison was both an academic and practical chemist. It was these combined skills which made him such an able scientist when developing a respirator which could be used for the large number of gases used during the war. Harrison and his team developed a large box respirator in early 1916 followed by a small box respirator later that year. The box became general issue and saved the lives of countless soldiers. Harrison was appointed Lieutenant-Colonel in charge of the anti-gas department in 1917 when his predecessor, Lieutenant-Colonel E. A. Starling, left for Salonika. Harrison’s achievements during the war were recognized across the European allies. He was made an Officer of the Légion d’honneur by France, Officer of the Order of St Maurice and St Lazarus by Italy, and Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George and Companion of the Distinguished Service Order by the United Kingdom.
Harrison’s early demise
In October 1918, Harrison died from influenza at his residence at 57 Chancery Lane, London. This address was the office of his business Harrison and Self. His early death is believed to be attributable to a weakened system brought about by his intensive war work and the inhalation of gas during early experimentation with gas masks. He was survived by his wife and younger son; his eldest son had been killed during the Battle of the Somme, aged only nineteen.
Harrison was buried with full military honours in Brompton Cemetery. His greatest legacy must be the number of soldiers whose lives were saved by his gas mask. Additionally, his work was so valued that Winston Churchill, the Minister of Munitions, sent a letter to Harrison’s widow commending his work and the protection given to troops from the German poison gases. He was commemorated by the Chemical Society, from 1926, by the award of the Edward Harrison Memorial Prize to young British chemists working in theoretical or physical chemistry. This prize is still awarded under the name the Harrison-Meldola Prizes.
Harrison is commemorated on a plaque, designed by Phyllis Blundell, in the library of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society and on Sanderstead’s war memorial at All Saints’ church, where his name appears next to that of his eldest son, Noel. The memorial contains the names of Sanderstead servicemen and civilians who died in the two world wars. Harrison’s work in unmasking fraudulent practice in proprietary medicine and its value to public health is less well-known. It is surprising that so little is known of a man whose contribution to the First World War was so great.
Edward Frank Harrison – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AColonel-Edward-Frank-Harrison.jpg
War Memorial at All Saints Church, Sanderstead – author’s image
Simon Jones, ‘Harrison, Edward Frank (1869–1918)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2008), http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/98022 [accessed 16 February 2016]
‘Memorial to Edward Frank Harrison designed by Phyllis Blundell, 1921’, http://www.pharmaceutical-journal.com/news-and-analysis/news/memorial-to-edward-frank-harrison-designed-by-phyllis-blundell-1921/10003840.article (27 April 2007), 278, p. 508 [accessed 16 February 2016]
Roote, Brian, Sanderstead Servicemen and Civilians Who Died in Two World Wars (2012)
The Royal Society of Chemistry