Dr. Robert Pierce Harris, Circus Physician to The Greatest Show on Earth

In the circus, much of the glory went to the performers, especially to the star performers. Their images were plastered on posters and in other advertising because everyone recognized them. They received all the applause. But behind the scenes were the people who kept the circus running.

The unsung crew raised the tents and took them down and moved the show to the next town. While the show settled on the circus lot, the behind-the-scenes crew created a home-like atmosphere. Thanks to workers in the cookhouse, everyone was served three hot meals a day. There was even a place to get a haircut or a shave.

This Ektachrome photo by J. Baylor Roberts was copyrighted by National Geographic Society. The caption read: “The Circus Has Its Own Medical Department Headed by Dr. Robert P. Harris. As he tapes an ankle for pretty aerialist Mildred Keithly, he lends support to the argument of some of his fellow showfolk that work as pleasant as his ought to be done free.”

If you were sick or injured, you called for the circus physician, which is the subject of this article. Dr. Robert Pierce Harris was the medical director for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in the 1940s. His wife, Lula, assisted as his nurse. Dr. Harris, a graduate of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, also served 18 months overseas as a captain in the medical corps during the First World War before joining the show.

A feature article “The Wonder City that Moves by Night” was published in the March 1948 issue of National Geographic. It was written by F. Beverly Kelley, who was the former Publicity Director for The Greatest Show on Earth. (Note: For more information on F. Beverly Kelly see my previous WorthPoint article: “Rare Collection of F. Beverly Kelley Documents Offered for Sale”) A related article in the same issue of National Geographic was entitled “Circus Action in Color” with many photos and text that explained how the photography was accomplished. One full-page color photo was of Dr. Robert Harris.

In 2009 I wrote an article, “You Too Can Be a Circus Owner,” telling the story of the world’s largest miniature circus, built by Howard Tibbals and now on permanent display at the Ringling Circus Museum in Sarasota, Fla. One small part of that massive model faithfully recreates the National Geographic photo of Dr. Harris and Mildred Keithly.

Dr. Harris treats a minor injury of a performer in the miniature circus on exhibit at the Ringling Circus Museum in Sarasota, Fla.

Here’s where the story really gets interesting. An unknown tourist visiting the Ringling Circus Museum took video of the miniature circus and uploaded it to YouTube. Meanwhile, in Raleigh, N.C., Anita Berry, a granddaughter of Dr. Harris, was surfing on YouTube looking for circus videos. She and her sister, Sylvia Wesche, of Colorado Springs, Co., had fond recollections of their grandparents and the many stories they heard about their years with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. She wanted to recapture some of their memories. Mrs. Berry couldn’t believe it when the scrolling video came across the scene of her grandfather. It was an image she was very familiar with because both she and her sister had copies of the National Geographic story. “It’s Pappy,” she exclaimed using the name they called their grandfather.

A photo from the YouTtube video reveals the classic scene in Howard Bros. Circus miniature.

Mrs. Berry had been unaware of the miniature circus at the Ringling Circus Museum, but she immediately contacted the museum for more information. In talking with Jennifer Lemmer Posey, assistant curator at the Circus Museum, she was made aware of the Tibbals Center for the Study of the American Circus, an educational facility for circus research by scholars, historians and curators with 12,475 square feet of climate-controlled archival storage space. She and her sister had been discussing what they should do with the many photographs and other documents from their grandfather’s years with The Greatest Show on Earth. Now, perhaps, they had a solution. They soon planned a trip together to visit the museum in Sarasota to see the archives and get an in-person view of their “Pappy” in Tibbals’ model.

I was privileged to meet with Berry and Wesche when they visited the museum and took them on their tour of the miniature circus in the Tibbals Learning Center.

“Look, it’s Pappy,” they both said when we came to the Medical Tent portion of the model.

I wish you could have seen the look on their faces. It was sheer delight. Later, they were given a tour of the research facilities and I’m pleased to say they were happy to donate their grandfather’s collection to the museum.

Below are just a few of the many items in the collection.

Dr. Harris relaxes in the Circus Medical Tent on a hot day.

This patient is identified as Don on the back of the photo. It looks like he may have sprained his arm.

Dr. Harris poses on the back lot with members of the Doll Family and circus giant Gottlieb Fischer who, with his wife, were billed as the Tallest Married Couple on Earth.

Dr. Harris and his wife relax at their home while the circus was in Winter Quarters in Sarasota, Fla.

Many of the photographs were signed to the doctor and his wife from their many friends, both on the show and from visiting celebrities.

World famous clown Emmett Kelly signed his photo “Very sincere wishes to my friends Mr. & Mrs. Dr. Harris from Emmett Kelly 1945.”

Equestrienne Ella Bradna affectionately wrote, “To sweet Mom from her sincere friend.” The photo was dated Jan. 19, 1946. Close friends on the circus called Lula Harris “Mom.”

The Loyal Repensky bareback riding act presented this signed photo to Dr. Harris, “a great friend.”

Movie stars and other celebrities of the day loved the circus and frequently attended performances. Movie and television actress Ann Sheridan signed this photo for Dr. Harris.

Robert Ringling signed an employee pass to be used for the Madison Square Garden engagement. For a few years in the 1940s, Robert Ringling was president of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. Robert was the son of Charles Ringling, one of the five original Ringling Brothers.

On July 6, 1944, a tragic fire in Hartford, Conn., struck the Ringling Big Top during the afternoon performance. The fire killed 169 people, mostly women and children. The following day Dr. Harris received this Western Union telegram from Parke Davis & Company, a pharmaceutical supply company.

The Western Union telegram states: “Feel free to call upon us for any assistance we can render in the present emergency. Can make prompt shipment of surgical dressings from our bay division in Bridgeport and pharmaceutical items from New York branch stock. Wire us if you wish orders holding shipped to Harford.”

The collection from Dr. Harris’s family is a wonderful addition to the Ringling Circus archives and is valued at more than $1,000. It contains more than 150 photographs and other artifacts which document the importance of the circus physician and the role he played treating the 1500 plus members of the traveling circus in the 1940s.

Larry Kellogg is a Worthologist specializing in circus memorabilia.

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