J.H. Harvey Pirie, medical scientist, medical administrator and philatelist, was the son of James Mitchell Pirie and his wife Elsie, born Harvey. He received his secondary education at Gordon's College in Aberdeen, Scotland, and continued his studies at the University of Edinburgh, which awarded him the degree Bachelor of Science (BSc) in geology. He then came to South Africa as a lieutenant in the University Unit of the Royal Army Field Artillery to take part in the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). After contracting and recovering from typhoid fever he returned to Scotland and qualified in medicine (MB ChB) at the University of Edinburgh in 1902. That same year he joined the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition (1902-1904), led by W.S. Bruce, as a medical officer, bacteriologist and geologist. Among other contributions he published 'A note on the geology of Gough Island' (Proceedings of the Royal Physical Society of Edinburgh, 1905/6), while his observations on the bacteriology of the Antarctic region were later published in Volume 3 (1912) of the expedition's Report. After his return to Scotland he started a private practice and also joined the staff of the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh. In 1907 he qualified as Doctor of Medicine (MD) and in 1910 was admitted as a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh.
In 1913 Pirie was appointed in the Colonial Medical Services and sent to Kenya as government pathologist and medical officer at the European Hospital in Mombasa. After the outbreak of World War I (1914-1918) he was commissioned as a major in the Royal Army Medical Corps Field Force and served with the Kenyan forces in the German East Africa Campaign. After the war, in August 1918, he was appointed as superintendent of the routine division of the South African Institute for Medical Research (SAIMR) in Johannesburg. From 1922 to 1926 he was also a part-time lecturer, later senior lecturer, in pathology at the recently established Medical School of the University of the Witwatersrand. Upon the retirement of Dr W. Watkins-Pitchford* as director of the Institute in 1926 Pirie became deputy director and in addition to his research also had administrative duties. In 1930 he undertook a four month tour to South and North America, the main objective of which was to attend the 98th meeting of the British Medical Association in Winnipeg, Canada. In September 1939 he was appointed acting director of the Institute (following the death of the director, Sir F.S. Lister*) and held this position until his retirement in June 1940.
Early in 1925 Pirie was transferred to the Research Division of the Institute to conduct research into plague, as a serious outbreak of the disease had occurred. He undertook many field trips to identify the rodent species responsible for spreading plague, in collaboration with the entomologist Dr A. Ingramm who studied their fleas and other external parasites that might be vectors for the plague organism. Ingram named a new flea species, Xenophsylla piriei, after him. During his three years of plague research Pirie also identified a disease in gerbils, which he named Tiger River Disease (the disease had been independently found overseas in rabbits in 1924). After studying the causative organism extensively he placed it in a new bacterial genus, Listerella, in honour of Sir F.S. Lister. He published a description of the disease and of other plague work, including a monograph in collaboration with Dr J.A. Mitchell* and Ingramm on 'The plague problem in South Africa', in SAIMR Publication No. 20 (1927). Pirie and W.A. Murray also published a paper on 'Plague in the north-west of the Cape Province' in the Journal of the Medical Association of South Africa (1927). From 1925 Pirie also worked on the prevention and treatment of plague (SAIMR Publication No. 25, 1929) but without notable success. He identified and described two strains of the plague bacterium (Ibid, No. 25, 1929). His plague work was interrupted by his appointment as a member of the Tuberculosis Research Committee, but was resumed in 1933. He was then mainly involved in the development of a plague vaccine and sera, sometimes in association with Dr Edmund Grasset.
During his years at the Institute Pirie published papers on a wide range of other topics. One of his first studies was of tuberculosis, in which he noted its importance as a cause of the highly fatal TB-meningitis. This work was described in 'Tuberculosis, meningitis and encephalitis lethargica' (Medical Journal of South Africa, 1919/20). He also conducted epidemiological studies and studies in helminthology, mycology, rickettsial diseases, and immunology. For example: In 'Hepatic carcinoma in natives and its association with schistosomiasis' (Medical Journal of South Africa, 1921/2) he reported that cancer of the liver was unusually common in Black mineworkers, especially in those coming from Mozambique, and investigated its association with bilharziasis. He carried out the first research on typhus at the Institute, dealing with diagnostic problems, louse control, and related issues. This work was reported in 'Typhus; its infectivity and the value of the Weil-Felix reaction in diagnosis' (Medical Journal of South Africa, 1922). In 'Blood testing preliminary to transfusion, with a note on the group distribution among South African natives' (Medical Journal of South Africa, 1921), written in the days when arm-to-arm transfusions were still common, he pointed out the necessity of blood group testing before transfusion and reported that the distribution of blood groups in South African Blacks differed from that in Whites. This work was the first South African study on the population genetics of blood groups.
After his retirement Pirie devoted much of his time to the affairs of the Medical Association of South Africa, serving as its president from about 1939 to 1945 and as a member of the executive committee from 1935 to 1956. He was awarded the association's gold medal in 1948. During World War II (1939-1945) he served on the Medical Advisory Committee and as a member of the International Committee of the Red Cross he visited prisoner of war camps. In recognition of his war work he was awarded the South African Medal for War Service.
As a philatelist Pirie specialised in World War II postmarks, the philately of the Polar Regions, and the postage stamps of Swaziland, and received many local and international awards. He served as editor of the South African Philatelist for 36 years, and on the committee of the Africana Museum, Johannesburg, from 1943 to 1965. He bequeathed his stamp collection to the museum.
Pirie was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. In 1910, in London, he married Agnes Mabel Kerr, with whom he had three children.