Dr Harry Angelman

The History of Dr Harry Angelman and Angelman Syndrome

Harry Angelman was born in Birkenhead in the UK, in 1915. He studied medicine at Liverpool University and qualified in 1938. With a view to specialising in paediatrics, he gained a diploma in child health and took up a post at Booth Hall Children’s Hospital in Manchester. From there he went to Queen Mary’s Hospital, Carshalton, before joining the Royal Army Medical Corps and being posted to India.

As Major Angelman, he attended to the medical needs of Italian prisoners of-war in Quetta, where his fascination with the Italian language began. After demobilisation, he was appointed to St. Mary Abbott’s Hospital, London and in 1947 he attained membership of the Royal College of Physicians. He then went as registrar to the Royal Liverpool Children’s Hospital where he received his doctorate of medicine in 1948. In 1950 he became consultant paediatrician to the Warrington group of hospitals.

In the early 1960’s, three disabled children were examined by Angelman. Although their disabilities differed, he felt that there was a common cause. Despite technical investigations, which today are more refined, the diagnosis was purely clinical because  he was unable to establish scientific proof that the children all had the same condition.

Portrait of a Boy with Drawing

Subsequently, on holiday in Italy, Harry Angelman happened to see an oil painting at the Castelvecchio Museum in Verona entitled “Portrait of a Boy holding a Child’s drawing”.  The boy’s happy smiling face – a striking and endearing trait of children with Angelman syndrome – immediately caught his eye. The drawing in the child’s hand showed a little puppet , which also reminded Dr Angelman of the rigid and jerky movements exhibited by his three Warrington children. The intriguing Renaissance artwork prompted him to write an article called “Puppet Children” where he described the common traits of his three young patients.

This significant article was published in December 1965.  (In 1991 he noted that this title did not please the  parents, ‘but it served as a means of combining the three little patients into one group’).  In 1971, Dr. Angelman was granted fellowship of the Royal College of Physicians; and in recognition of his studies, the name of this condition was later changed to Angelman Syndrome. He retired five years later and moved to Portsmouth to embark on translating medical text books from Italian into English.

An American support group for Angelman syndrome began in 1986. The Angelman Research Group (ARG) was created in late 1987 on the cusp of the discovery that the maternal chromosome 15 is a genetic marker for the syndrome. The group restructured and officially became the Angelman Syndrome Foundation (ASF) in December of 1991. There are now numerous similar associations in many countries worldwide, which offer information and support to the families of affected children. They are listed here:  Angelman syndrome organisations

Though Dr Harry Angelman passed away in 1996, his wife, Audrey Angelman, continued supporting families and promoting awareness of Angelman Syndrome until she passed away in 1999. Audrey was instrumental in the establishment of the first International Angelman Syndrome Organisation (IASO). Although it has since been dissolved, more recent collaborative ventures have been initiated to promote global research and networking.

In 2013, an informal collective of AS organisations from many countries around the world joined forces to commemorate our inaugural International Angelman Day – to be held annually on 15th February.