Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 69(1) February 2019

Great Medical Lives

Robert E. Havard: The Medical Inkling

Sarah O’Dell, M.A., B.S.

Many are familiar with the Inklings, the Oxford writing group who met throughout the 1930s and 1940s and whose members included C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams. The group’s shared interest in mythopoetic literature and Christian thought has attracted a wide variety of scholars, with many academic journals dedicated to the group or its respective members. Nonetheless, a large number of Inklings remain woefully under-studied, including Robert E. Havard, a Catholic physician, scholar, and poet.

Robert Emlyn Havard was born in 1901 in South Kyme, Lincolnshire. After receiving undergraduate training in chemistry at Oxford, he went on to study medicine at Cambridge and Guy’s Hospital in London. Over his career, he held a number of research posts and co-authored over twenty scientific publications in a wide variety of journals: The Lancet, Nature, and the Annals of Tropical Medicine and Parasitology, among others. While Havard’s scientific training primed him for a career in academic medicine, his yearning for a more clinically-oriented position eventually lead him to accept a general practice in Oxford.

Dr. Havard’s association with the Inklings, and notably his friendship with C.S. Lewis, began around 1934 when he made a house call to treat Lewis’s influenza. In Havard’s reminiscence “Philia: Jack at Ease,” he recounts that the pair spent “some five minutes discussing his influenza ... and then half an hour or more in a discussion of ethics and philosophy” [1]. The men’s common interests—philosophy, theology, and poetry—set the groundwork for a friendship that would last until Lewis’s death, almost thirty years later.

Havard also enjoyed a long-standing friendship with J.R.R. Tolkien, likely aided by their shared Catholic faith. Just as with Lewis, Havard’s relationship with Tolkien persisted even once the Inklings had dissolved as a writing group. In “Professor J.R.R. Tolkien: A Personal Memoir,” Havard recounts that the two men were neighbours from 1953 to 1968. They attended the same church, and Havard “often drove him home and [the pair] sat in the car chatting for half an hour or so outside [Tolkien’s] house” [2]. Indeed, it was not uncommon for Havard to drive both Lewis and Tolkien throughout the course of their long friendships, as while both claimed to hate the automobile, each would call on Dr. Havard whenever they needed a ride [3]!

Surprisingly, scholarship has largely neglected Dr. Havard’s contribution to the Inklings—despite the fact that he was one of the group’s most regular members—as well as his published writings. While not as prolific as his compatriots, Havard’s his own literary accomplishments include an appendix to Lewis’s first apologetic work The Problem of Pain, his own apologetic for the importance of beauty,[4] a sizeable number of poems,[5] and a variety of book reviews on theological and medical topics. Crucially, Havard’s Catholic faith—inclusive of his integrated view of medicine, spirituality, and human persons—shines through and unites this body of work.

Of special importance to Dr. Havard was the role of medicine among those of religious vocation. As a Catholic physician in Oxford, he was often called upon to offer medical care and advice to the religious houses in the area, and such work required an acute understanding of the qualities of religious life. Colin Havard (son to Robert Havard) has remarked on his father’s sensitivity to the context of such medical cases, noting that he “had a good sense of psychology as well as of pure physical medicine” [3]. Dr. Havard’s attentiveness to human psychology, as well as his compassion for those suffering mental illness, exists as a common thread throughout his work.

Indeed, a glimpse into Dr. Havard’s service in religious houses and his care for those suffering psychiatric illness is provided by a 1956 book review published in this very journal. Titled “The Religious Life: The Role of the Medical Adviser,”[6] the article reviews Medical Guide to Vocations by René Biot, MD., and Pierre Galimard, M.D. Praising its authors, Havard’s review largely focuses on the book’s treatment of mental health.

Havard begins his review by affirming the “essential unity of human nature” 6], stressing a Thomistic understanding of human persons: “For it is clear that if body and soul are one “thing,” then any activity of the soul, as in prayer, will be reflected in some way in the body, and vice versa” [6]. It is in this intersection between body and soul that medicine “comes into contact with such spiritual questions ... [such as the] difficulties met with in the religious life” (26). Havard eloquently recognizes both the limitations of medicine—noting the “ill-defined borderland between body and mind” [6] and that “medicine is not an exact science, still less so psychological medicine” [6]—as well as its relevance to religious life. While he notes that mental illness is not “fundamentally altered” [4] by the religious life, the duty of the physician is tripartite: to recognize an individual’s mental suffering, to understand their illness, and “wherever possible, to help them” [6. Near the conclusion of his review, Havard calls for a collaboration between a doctor and a priest to explore the “relation between the life of the spirit and the life of the emotions” [6] Such work remains relevant and necessary today.

The fundamentally Catholic view of human persons so emphasized by Dr. Havard continues to inform the way that Christians practice medicine. In today’s medical landscape, with frequent burnout among health providers and the perceived lack of empathy in the provider-patient encounter, Dr. Havard’s humanitarian and intellectual work remains important. As I work on a book-length consideration of Dr. Havard’s life and writings, I hope to not only unveil a physician-scholar nearly forgotten by history, but also enrich how we consider our own work in medicine.


  1. Havard, R.E. Philia: Jack at Ease. In: Como J.T., editor. C.S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table, and Other Reminiscences. Macmillan; 1979. 215-228.
  2. Havard, R.E. Professor J.R.R. Tolkien A Personal Memoir. Mythlore. 1990; 17(2): 61.
  3. Hoetzel J, Bardowell MR. The Inklings Remembered: A Conversation with Colin Havard. Mythlore. 2012. 31(1-2):29-46.
  4. Published as a series of essays in the Franciscan Annals, 1947.
  5. See my previous article “Robert E. Havard: A Closer Look at the "Medical Inkling"." Mythlore. 2017; 36(1): 195-200.
  6. Havard, R.E. The Religious Life The Role of the Medical Adviser. Catholic Medical Quarterly. 1956; Volume 10 25-28.