Thursday 27 August 2020

The Inkling Robert "Humphrey" Havard as a medical scientist

An Inklings outing to The Trout, Godstow, near Oxford - 'Humphrey' Havard is third from the Left (in the middle); and his son John - who helped me with the research published below - is seated at the extreme right. CS Lewis sits in between the Havards.

Charlton, BG. Reflections on a scientific paper of 1926 by the medical ‘Inkling’ Robert Emlyn ‘Humphrey’ Havard (1901–1985). Medical Hypotheses. 2009; Volume 72: Pages 619-620


Robert Emlyn Havard (1901–1985; general practitioner and sometimes medical scientist) was the only non-literary member of the Inklings – a 1930s and 1940s Oxford University club which included Lewis and Tolkien. Despite spending most of his time in family medicine, Havard was a productive medical scientist. While still a student at Cambridge University, Havard co-authored an influential study published in the Journal of Physiology of 1926 entitled ‘The influence of exercise on the inorganic phosphates in the blood and urine’. The style and structure of this paper provides a charming window into the elite medical science of the 1920s.

Havard: The medical Inkling

The Inklings was a group of friends and colleagues who gathered around Lewis in Oxford University during the 1930s and 1940s [1]. The group would meet weekly after dinner in the evening at Lewis’s rooms in Magdalen College to read works-in-progress, and more informally to converse in the Eagle and Child (‘Bird and Baby’) pub in St Giles.

Lewis is now world famous as author of the Narnia fairy stories, and was probably the greatest lay Christian writer of the 20th century. The other world famous Inkling was Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Charles Williams the novelist, poet and theologian was a later member. Other well-known Inklings included the philosopher Owen Barfield, Nevill Coghill – who became known as a Shakespearian director and published the best known modern English version of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the ‘angry young man’ novelist and literary scholar John Wain, and the biographer Lord David Cecil. Lewis’s brother Warren (‘Warnie’) was usually in attendance: he was a popular historian of the France of Louis XIV. Tolkien’s youngest son Christopher later joined, and is now the only surviving Inkling – Christopher Tolkien is the most important scholar of his father’s work.

In a recent book on the Inklings, The company they kept [2], Diana Pavlac Glyer notes that almost all of the regular members of the group were active authors – producing academic books, essays, novels, stories, plays and poems. The Inklings essentially functioned as a writers’ group that provided mutual encouragement, criticism and editorial assistance. Superficially at least, the odd-man-out was Robert Emlyn Havard (1901–1985), who was a general practitioner and sometimes medical scientist and the family physician for both Lewis and Tolkien.

Havard appears in fictional form as the somnolent but shrewd character ‘Dolbear’ in Tolkien’s posthumously published story The Notion Club papers [3]; and Lewis’s Prince Caspian is dedicated to Havard’s daughter [4]. He had various nicknames bestowed on him by the group including ‘Humphrey’, ‘the Red Admiral’ (due to a beard grown while in the navy) and UQ – which stood for the ‘Useless Quack’. Indeed, in his sneering and pervasively unreliable biography of Lewis, Havard is depicted by AN Wilson as something of a buffoon [5].

This was far from the case, as can be seen from Havard’s early career as a medical scientist. The most complete account of Havard’s life so-far is by Walter Hooper in his Lewis: a companion and guide [6]. Havard began by taking a first class degree in chemistry at Keble College, Oxford then studying medicine at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge and Guy’s Hospital in London to graduate with the Oxford medical degree of BM BCh in 1927. He took an Oxford DM (Doctor of Medicine) in 1934 while working at Leeds University in the Biochemistry Department, and in the same year returned to Oxford as a research fellow in The Queen’s College, and around this time became a general practitioner.

Despite spending most of his time in general medical practice, Havard was a productive medical scientist with his name on more than two dozen papers published in first rank journals such as Nature, the Lancet, Biochemical Journal and the Journal of Physiology. He had three spells of research and publication – the first mainly to do with human biochemistry during the mid 1920s while he was still a medical student; a second studying more clinical aspects of biochemistry from the early 1930s as a medical graduate doing a doctorate in Leeds and Oxford, and the third from the early 1940s when working on anti-malarial drugs while an above-conscription-age volunteer for military service during world war two [2].

Exercise, phosphates and fun

During his days as a medical undergraduate in Cambridge, Havard co-authored (with George Adam Reay) an influential study published in the Journal of Physiology of 1926 entitled ’The influence of exercise on the inorganic phosphates in the blood and urine’. It was this amiable paper, with its depictions of a time when doing science was akin to an undergraduate ‘jape’, that provoked the following reflections.

This paper was certainly not earth-shattering, nonetheless seems to have been one of the most cited of that year’s volume of J. Physiol. There are currently 13 references to be found on the Google Scholar database ( (quite a lot for such an old paper) with the most recent reference in 1971.

The style and structure provides a charming window onto the very different science of the early 1920s; with its un-translated ‘varsity’ slang, ‘clubby’ style of referencing which lists only authors surnames without initials (in 1926 the membership of the Physiological Society was less than 400 [7]) and delightful vignettes concerning the conduct of experiments.

One striking feature is that the experimental methodology reported in the paper is described as having changed significantly throughout the period of the experiment, and results are given both for before and after these trial-and-error modifications. A modern scientific paper would surely omit the earlier failed attempts. Indeed, the style of this article is less like a modern paper than a slice of laboratory life. The impression is that these scientific pioneers wanted to share not just their results, but the nuts and bolts of how results were generated.

Havard and Reay describe how ‘the exercise took the form of the subject running up and down the laboratory stairs, 40 ft in height, until he was exhausted’ during and after which many one cubic centimetre blood samples were taken from the subject’s finger in order to measure the phosphate etc. – which seems likely to have been a painful procedure. However, one of the main subjects listed was ‘R.E.H.’ himself, so he could not be accused of inflicting on others something he avoided himself.

Indeed, all the experimental subjects are listed by their initials, and presumably therefore identifiable by those ‘in the know’ (so, none of our present-day worries about ‘confidentiality’ are in evidence). In one of the tables we are told that that subjects include G.B. described as ‘A rowing man’, W.E.T. a ‘Rugby “Blue”’ (a ‘Blue’ was awarded to Oxford undergraduates for competing at the highest level of university sport), H.K.B.O. a ‘Running “Blue”’, E.H.F a ‘Sprinter’; and again Havard himself who is, by contrast to these athletes, only ‘Partly trained’.

Collecting urine samples was a problem – we are informed that H.K.B.O. (despite – or maybe because? – of being a Running Blue) was unable to produce a urine sample for 7 min after his exercise. In another experiment R.H.B (‘Running’) was ‘as exhausted and distressed as any of the untrained subjects’ – which must have been rather humiliating for him. But then R.H.B seems not to have been a Blue.

Three women were included as subjects. Miss (I assume it was a Miss) M.M. did exercise which was rather disdainfully dismissed as ‘not very vigorous’; Miss B.E.H. managed ‘more vigorous’ exercise; while the Amazonian Miss C.E.L. was able to perform ‘very vigorous’ exercise – unfortunately however after these exertions she was depicted as ‘very exhausted’. Havard noted, with obvious regret, that the women produced ‘anomalous results’ which were ‘difficult to account for’.

In conclusion the authors reported that phosphate goes up a little then markedly down on exercise, and that trained men show less of these exercise-induced changes in their blood inorganic phosphate.

A snapshot from a lost era

My interest in this paper was stimulated because it presents in microcosm a snapshot of science from an all-but lost era of the ‘invisible college’ of collaborating and competing researchers who knew each other well-enough to dispense with formalities, and whose world was essentially private despite publication in widely circulated journals [8]. To the hard-nosed professional modern scientist, such early 20th century papers look eccentric and idiosyncratic. The paper is indeed ‘amateur’, but mostly in a desirable sense of describing science as an avocation done for intrinsic reasons and the esteem of peers, rather than a vocation rewarded by a secure income and managerial power.

But much more important and striking is the total absence of exaggeration, hype, or spin: the paper’s openness, candour – in a word honesty. This marks the biggest and most dismaying contrast between publications of the science of 80 years ago and of modern science. There has indeed been a loss of innocence, collegiality and fun; but a loss of unvarnished truthfulness is the most serious change against current practice [9].

I have said that Havard was not himself a writer, but on the evidence of this early article, Havard was an unusually vivid scientific author from his mid-twenties. Indeed he wrote essays and journalistic reviews dating back to his student days and continuing through into the 1950s. Furthermore, Havard contributed posthumous memoirs of both Lewis [10] and Tolkien [11].

All of which helps explain why, despite not being a literary man, ‘Humphrey’s’ presence at the Inklings meetings was so highly valued.


I am grateful to Robert Havard’s eldest son John, who kindly gave me a list of some of his father’s publications, and provided fascinating background information by means of e-mail and telephone conversations. John Havard’s brother Mark (i.e. RE Havard’s second son) also corresponded, and reminded me that the doctor in CS Lewis’s 1943 novel Perelandra was named ‘Humphrey’.


[1] H. Carpenter, The inklings, George Allen and Unwin, London (1981).

[2] D.P. Glyer, The company they keep: CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien and writers in community, Kent State University Press, Kent, Ohio (2007).

[3] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Notion Club papers, Morgoth’s ring: history of middle earth volume IX, HarperCollins, London (1992).

[4] C.S. Lewis, Prince Caspian, Geoffrey Bles, London (1951).

[5] A.N. Wilson, CS Lewis: A biography, Collins, London (1990).

[6] R.E. Havard and G.A. Reay, The influence of exercise on the inorganic phosphates of the blood and urine, J Physiol 61 (1926), pp. 35–48.

[7] W.F. Bynum, A short history of the physiological society 1926–1976, J Physiol 263 (1976), pp. 23–72. View Record in Scopus | Cited By in Scopus (0)

[8] T. Kealey, Sex, science and profits: how people evolved to make money, William Heinemann, London (2008).

[9] B.G. Charlton, The vital role of transcendental truth in science, Med Hypotheses 72 (2009), pp. 373–376.

[10] R.E. Havard, Philia: Jack at ease. In: T. James and C.S. Como, Editors, Lewis at the breakfast table and other reminiscences, Harvest/HBJ Book, New York (1979), pp. 215–228.

[11] R.E. Havard and J.R.R. Professor, Tolkien: a personal memoir, Mythlore 17 (1990), pp. 61–62.

Wednesday 26 August 2020

Charles Williams and the intoxications (and despair) of abstraction

One great service Charles Williams accomplished for me, was to take abstraction and reveal it in its most appealing and life-enhancing guise, but then to follow it through to its logical terminus in something close-to despair.

I felt this again just recently on re-engaging with Charles Williams - as I did on the first encounter back in 1987. Williams takes the everyday, the personal and inter-personal - and makes it into symbolic abstraction; and then he sticks-with that abstraction, and goes higher and further, until we are close to replacing the mundane with the abstract.

This produced a distinctive feeling in me. The everyday would be made strange, hazy and surrounded by a magical glow - yet Williams sought (explicitly, persistently) for absolute clarity, for pattern, for precision...

Thus the initial abstraction would be clarified by ever-more, more-precise abstractions; yet the effect of these explanations on me was that I never quite got to the clarity that would allow it to become a root or basis for life.

To my mind, Williams would 'solve' one problem - such as human suffering - by extraordinarily radical abstraction; that, if adhered to, ended by making everything an instance of that problem.

Yet it is almost unique to Williams, among Christian writers I have encountered, that he stuck-with his abstractions wherever they would lead - which was, in fact, to a condition that was close to despair. Not exactly despair, because of faith - but only a (crucial) hairsbreadth, only the thickness of gold leaf - between his abstract realism about this mortal life... and despair.

This can best be seen in perhaps his supreme work of theology 'The Cross' , which I would encourage you to read slowly and thoughtfully (if possible). Williams's apparently positive and optimistic ideas of Romantic Theology are based on co-inherence, substitution and exchange; which seem to offer great possibilities for present alleviation, for the assistance of future and past persons in our present lives (as in Descent into Hell, when a modern women and a long-dead Protestant martyr exchange their sufferings).

Yet in The Cross; Williams recognises that his use of a unity of Time to make all past, present and possible futures ultimately simultaneous; has some extremely stunning consequences. For instance, that the sacrifice of Christ's crucifixion is always now, always available - means that Christ is always being crucified. That any suffering by anybody is not only eternal, but actively willed by God.

That the historical reality of Christ is also absolutely non-historical because his life/ death/ cricifiction/ ascension always-was and always-will be.

But also that Satan, all demons, all the worst evil ever done by anyone (including all future evil) is simultaneous and experienced now; and part of God's plan.

At a mundane level; Williams's assertion that the City of London is really and ultimately the City of God; means that everything about London is part of the divine. On the one hand, this elevated the everday business of life in the Oxford University Press offices to a divine and eternal level; on the other hand it meant that all the pains, fears, boredom, dullness, spite and other sins of his actual life was incorportated into the City of God, forever.

And yet, actually grasping such a perspective, holding onto it, comprehedning it, explaining it... always this seemed to be slipping out of reach. And the more I really focused-in on William's explanations of his explanations; the more often it slipped away.

Eventually I recognised that this was intrinsic to abstraction itself; and that the only understanding that would ultimately satisfy me were the very simple and personal explanations of early childhood 'animism' - of a living and wholly personal creation.

So I ended at an opposite extreme from CW; but I am very grateful for him in getting me here; and I believe that he deserves great credit for taking his ideas to their extreme terminus - taking them to a point far beyond that which most philosophers or theologians are prepared to venture.

That point you can see for yourself - if you make the (significant) effort to read What the Cross means to me

Only at that point was the reductio ad absurdum of Williams's abstracting premises apparent to me.

Therefore, I would have to regard Charles Williams as a more important (because more rigorous and honest) Christian philosopher than many much-more-famous and more-widely-prestigious names. 

Tuesday 25 August 2020

The death of Charles Williams, and the decline of The Inklings - a 'transcendental' perspective

When Charles Williams died in May 1945, The Inklings seemed to be a thriving creative force - since the war years had seen CS Lewis produce some of his very best, and most impactful, work; Tolkien was working on Lord of the Rings; Warnie Lewis had begun to publish his histories of 17th century France - and Charles Williams had written and published some of his very best (and forward-looking) work in poetry and fiction.

All this was brought to an end by the sudden death of Charles Williams following surgery, aged only 58. This knocked the heart out of The Inklings - as they all immediately acknowledged. The gathering afterwards became a looser and more casual, less purposive, less valuable gathering of friends - instead of a focused and productive collaboration of writers, critics and thinkers.

Yet, in a sense, the end was coming anyway; since CW had already decided to return to London, to serve-out his years at the Oxford University Press. Furthermore, Williams felt himself to be already in a decline of health, energy and motivation.

By 1944, by my judgment; Williams had proved that prevarication and dissipation of effort was a part of his nature. CW was continually profligate with his money, which led to him wasting time and effort on hack work (pot-boiler books and reviews, done purely for money). Consequently he seldom gave the fullest time or energy to his significant books and poems; or didn't get around to writing them at all (e.g. critical monographs on Shakespeare, Milton and Wordsworth; which he was so well-equipped to write). My point is that Williams needed explicit encouragement and pressure (from those he respected) if he was to retain courage and a sense of high purpose - left to his own devices, he would be likely to waste his abilities and remaining strength.

At this point; I wish to take a transcendental view - a 'God's Eye' view - of CW's mortal life, and the question: Why did Charles Williams die when he did?

Of course, this kind of alternative history is completely subjective and speculative; but here it is...

As the war came to its end, the situation for Charles Williams was that his status at the Oxford University Press had declined, he was tolerated rather than being the centre of things - as he once had been. He was overlooked for 'in house' commissions - he reported that when an OUP meeting was gathered to consider who should be invited to author a new book on Shakespeare, it seemed that it did not even cross anybody's mind that CW might be well-suited to the job.

The Press declined to publish the new collection of poems The Region of the Summer Stars - despite that this proved to be the best-selling, and (I would say) best-quality poetry of Williams's career (both aspects of which were perhaps bolstered by the intense interest in Williams's poetry by Oxford's wartime undergraduates).

Apparently, CW was now a has-been from the perspective of the OUP. All that he could expect from the return to the London offices, was to work-out his final years in quiet seclusion, qualify for his pension, and then retire.

And the reason for this coolness at the Press was probably Oxford University itself. CW had, throughout the war years, devoted a great deal of his work time - i.e. the hours for which was paid by the OUP - teaching for Oxford University as a tutor and lecturer; even to the point of supervising pupils in his office on the premises of OUP!

More significantly, Oxford University valued CW far more than the Press. He attracted respect beyond his friends Lewis and Tolkien (the major Oxford 'fixer' and administrator Maurice Bowra - head (Warden) of Wadham college, was an admirer); was awarded an honorary degree (MA) qualifying him for full academic privileges; and he had become something of a cult figure among the students. His lectures were well attended, impactful and influential; and student societies (and other clubs in the area) called upon him frequently to give talks.

There was nothing definite to keep Williams in Oxford; but there were distinct and plausible possibilities for Williams if he was to stay - especially given his powerful and high-level support. There was talk of making him a University Reader (a faculty level, not college, sub-professorial appointment); and putting him in for the Professor of Poetry election (this was a prestigious public platform, but time-limited and essentially unpaid). Plus there were possibilities of college Fellowships, in the usual Oxford way.

Therefore in late 1944 to early 1945; Charles Williams was faced with two possibilities.

There was the high risk but potentially high reward path of staying at Oxford, continuing with The Inklings, and continuing to grow in fame and influence from that base.

And there was the 'safe' path of going back to London, and time-serving towards his pension at the Press.

Here comes my speculative explanation of Williams's premature death... My feeling is that by choosing the safe but mediocre path of London, Williams was signalling that his creative life was over, and that there was no compelling reason for him to keep living: therefore, he died.

And the counter-factual speculation is that if Williams had chosen the Oxford path - he would Not have died.

Instead, CW would have continued to develop creatively as a poet, novelist, critic and teacher. And, as a side-effect, the Inklings would have continued as a generative and significant gathering of co-workers - since they had come to depend-upon his presence for their distinctive cultural role.

In brief; I am saying that Charles Williams made the wrong decision in opting for London over Oxford; therefore there was no reason for him to continue living: so he did not.