Professor Henry Halliday, paediatrician who vastly improved the survival prospects of very premature babies – obituary

Henry Halliday - Courtesy of Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health
Henry Halliday - Courtesy of Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health

Professor Henry Halliday, who has died aged 76, was a paediatrician whose research on premature babies has saved countless lives.

Until the 1980s the outcome for babies born very prematurely was poor, mainly because their lungs are not well developed and they lack a substance, surfactant, which is essential to open the small airways. Without it the lungs collapse and the baby struggles to breathe.

Halliday worked with colleagues at Cambridge and in Norway and Sweden to produce a surfactant which could be delivered to a newborn’s lungs immediately after birth.

Other types of surfactant were also developed and Halliday was at the forefront of international trials to determine the optimum product and how it should be delivered. His work defined the standard of treatment used throughout the world – which has dramatically improved the survival rates of premature babies.

Henry Halliday was born in Belfast on November 29 1945, the eldest of four brothers. His father Louis was an accountant, while and mother Gladys worked in a shop. He was educated at Belfast Royal Academy and then read Medicine at Queen’s University, the first in his family to go to university.

Having embarked on a career in paediatrics, Halliday became one of the few to specialise in the emerging field of neonatal medicine. He undertook specialist training at two of the world’s leading centres, in Cleveland, Ohio, and San Francisco, returning to develop a neonatal unit in Belfast and a network of care across the whole of Northern Ireland.

He worked closely with Garth McClure and Mark Reid, along with an obstetrician, Knox Ritchie. An early political success was to stop plans for a stand-alone maternity hospital in Belfast; he was convinced that co-location with a major university hospital was much more sensible.

Henry Halliday with a grandchild
Henry Halliday with a grandchild

He rapidly became part of a European network of experts in neonatal medicine which was pivotal in organising large randomised trials of surfactant treatment. He undertook many systematic reviews and wrote more than 500 much-cited scientific papers, many of which have been at the heart of the revolution of care over the last 50 years.

He was president of several international organisations, including the European Society of Paediatric Research and the Irish and American Pediatric Society. In the European Society of Perinatal Medicine he reluctantly became involved in international medical politics as it needed major structural reform, but in the end he was awarded their Maternité Prize.

He was founding editor of Biology of the Neonate (now Neonatology) and remained active in this position long into his retirement. He received many international awards and in 2021 was awarded the James Spence Medal of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, the highest honour for a UK paediatrician.

In 1994 he had major surgery to remove a massive pelvic tumour with major blood loss and renal failure requiring several months of haemodialysis. He was so ill that the doctors considered withdrawing treatment. But he was back at work within six months.

While president of the European Society of Paediatric Research he hosted the annual meeting in Belfast. His predecessor in Hungary had entered the meeting dressed in traditional costume riding a white stallion; Henry wondered if he should dress as a leprechaun and come in on a donkey.

He played rugby as second row to a reasonably high standard, and shortly before Christmas one year a fist came down in the line out and broke his jaw in two places. His jaw was wired together and he ate Christmas dinner through a straw.

Henry Halliday married Marjorie Dalziel, an intensive care nurse, in 1977. She survives him along with their three children, all of whom are doctors.

Henry Halliday, born November 29 1945, died November 12 2022