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Paul Harker

As Dorset's director of public health, Paul Harker pioneered programmes to reduce smoking, tackle obesity and prevent suicides among young men
19 May 2021

This obituary appeared in the Guardian on May 14th 2021


As Dorset’s director of public health, Paul Harker pioneered programmes to reduce smoking, tackle obesity and prevent suicides among young men.  He died of pancreatic cancer in May 2021, after devoting his career to working for the National Health Service – championing community-based services to reduce health inequalities, first as a paediatrician, then as a director of public health.

Paul was born in 1944 in London, son of Kenneth Harker, a solicitor, and his wife, Dorothy (nee Beacall). He came to Dulwich Prep in 1953, aged 9, and left in 1957 for St John’s school, Leatherhead In his last year at DCPS he was the Ojibwas Tribe Captain and was the opening batsman in the 1st XI cricket team, playing alongside Derek Underwood who later became a fast bowler for England and Kent.

After studying medicine at St Bartholomew’s hospital he completed his training in Exeter, Farnborough (Kent) and Queen Mary’s hospital for children in Carshalton, Surrey. In 1967 he married Jackie Addison, his childhood sweetheart. On qualifying that year he took up a post in community paediatrics in Oxford, was quickly promoted to registrar and became a consultant at the young age of 30. Paul found the privileged atmosphere in Oxford both stimulating and stifling and by the late 1970s sought out a role in a less affluent part of the country.

He took a paediatrics post at Alder Hey children’s hospital in Liverpool and as a lecturer at Liverpool  University. It was a period of great turmoil in the city, with rioting breaking out in Toxteth in 1981 following longstanding tensions between the police and the black community, fuelled by high levels of deprivation. Seeing the impact of poverty on the health of young people made a lasting impression on Paul; he later wrote a book on the subject.

In 1982, Paul switched to working in public health. He was appointed district medical officer for West Dorset and became Dorset’s director of public health a decade later. In this role, he pioneered programmes to reduce smoking, tackle obesity and prevent suicides among young men. Much of his work during his 24 years in Dorset focused on improving the health of those living in the most deprived areas of the county. He never lost his determination to make a difference and was seconded to several roles, including director of HealthWorks, Dorset’s health promotions agency (1998-2002), and director of health promotion research at Bristol University (1994-97).

He retired in 2006 from his post as director of public health for Dorset but continued as a trustee of the Child Accident Prevention Trust (2003–10), and in later years worked as a volunteer for the NSPCC and for the Alzheimer’s Society.

Paul was a patient and modest man. He was often the best listener in the room and always knew the right question to ask. He had a deep appreciation of the sea, of nature, and of music and literature, and cherished spending time with his family.

He is survived by Jackie, their three daughters, Nicola, Katie and Lisa, and six grandchildren.

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