Lives of the fellows

Charles Robert (Sir) Harington

b.1 August 1897 d.4 February 1972
Kt(1948) KBE(1962) MA Cantab(1919) PhD Edin(1922) FRS(1931) FRSE(1951) Hon FRCP(1963)

Together with Sir Austin Bradford Hill, Harington was one of the first two non-medically qualified men to be elected an Honorary Fellow of the College in recognition of outstanding contributions to medicine. Indeed it was because of them that the College instituted this particular kind of Fellowship.

By birth, Charles Harington was a member of one of the most ancient families of England. Throughout the middle ages their story was typical of the turbulent nobility of that time. Related by marriage to the Tudors and the Stuarts, they played a noteworthy role during the 16th and 17th centuries but, having taken the Parliamentary side during the Civil War, their fortunes suffered a severe reverse at the Restoration. Included in the family was the Sir William who bore the standard at Agincourt, Sir John, the Elizabethan courtier, poet, soldier and inventor of the water-closet, Sir James who was one of Charles I’s judges, and the James who wrote ‘The Commonwealth of Oceana’ which later became something of a text-book for the Founding Fathers of the United States of America. Throughout its long history, however, only one member of the family before Charles Harington achieved any distinction in science. He, a friend of Samuel Pepys, was elected in 1663 to the Royal Society, presumably in virtue of his work on the suspension of life by cold. It is a remarkable coincidence that, three hundred years later, the definitive work on that subject should have been done at the National Institute for Medical Research during Charles Harington’s directorship.

Harington’s childhood was passed in a succession of rural country parishes of which his father was vicar. In 1907, whilst at his preparatory school, an event occurred which altered his whole life. He developed tuberculosis of the hip. For four years he was immobilised and for a further two on crutches. His education was thus perforce continued at home. Nevertheless he won a scholarship to Malvern College, although he could not take this up until two years later. In consequence he spent only two years at school, but this sufficed for him to win an exhibition in mathematics to Magdalene College, Cambridge. On arrival there in October 1916, he was told that, because of his health, he must abandon his ambition to be an engineer. In consequence, he turned to natural sciences. After taking his degree in 1919, his developing interest in the application of chemistry to pharmacology sent him to George Barger’s laboratory in Edinburgh. Here he soon showed his quality, with the result that four years later he was appointed a lecturer in the newly created department of Chemical Pathology at University College Hospital Medical School in London.

Returning from a year in America, he threw himself into his research on the internal secretions of the thyroid gland. Within five short years, he had determined the chemical constitution of thyroxine and effected its synthesis. It was no surprise, therefore, when, at the early age of thirty-three, he was elected FRS and promoted to be a Professor.

In medical history, Harington’s name will always be associated with the work that put our knowledge of the chemistry of the thyroid on a sound basis. But this should not obscure the significance of his pioneering contributions in other fields. In particular he opened up research in immunochemistry. He made important contributions to the study of antihormones. He was the first to purify insulin. He synthesised glutathione. In fact by early middle age he had a succession of achievements to his credit that put him in the front rank of biochemistry. But this in itself does not account for the reputation he was coming to acquire in wide scientific circles. What was unusual about him was his appreciation of the significance of developments in fields other than his own. Thus his book on the thyroid gland covered its physiology, pathology and the clinical aspects of its disorders and welded these, together with its chemistry, into one intellectual synthesis. It was this unusual capacity to ‘get inside the skin’ of subjects other than his own, and to see the whole in a single perspective, that marked him out. This it was that, combined with the growing evidence of his flair for administration, accounted for his being appointed, despite his lack of medical qualifications, to succeed Sir Henry Dale as Director of the National Institute for Medical Research.

When Harington took over, the country was in the middle of the second world war. Immediately he had to cope with a whole range of demanding problems. This he did with an unselfconscious reliability that won the respect of scientists and administrators alike. The war ended, he was then faced with moving the Institute into much larger premises. When he took over he had a scientific staff of 45. In anticipation of the move this was expanded to 80. At his retirement it was 145. The acquisition of nineteen Fellowships of the Royal Society and a Nobel Prize sufficiently indicates the quality of the work that went on under his direction. And he was a director in the full sense of the word. Although personally scrupulously modest, he kept in touch with everything that was being done and, with his sense of perspective, saw links between developments in seemingly remote subjects which enabled him to promote many a fruitful combination. Further, he deliberately cultivated the fields in which the results of biomedical research are put into practice. He was a member of the Board of Governors of University College Hospital, of the North West Metropolitan Regional Hospital Board and Chairman of Council of UCH Medical School. These broad contacts in medical and scientific circles, together with his perceptive awareness of the significance of new developments and obvious lack of self-seeking, meant that men readily accepted his leadership and turned to him with confidence in their difficulties. To the pleasure of the Medical Research Council, when he came to retire in 1962, he agreed to act as Consultant Adviser to the Secretary; and, in that post, his wisdom and skill were again invaluable in integrating the rapidly growing fields of basic biology into medical research policy.

To Harington, the director of a large multidisciplinary research institute was the leader of its research campaign. Perhaps because of his background, leadership came naturally to him. Although the least self-assertive of men, he had a natural authority and his acceptance of responsibility was unquestioning. To many, today, this attitude might seem paternalistic. But when he came to retire there was no mistaking the respect in which he was held nor that this, in its warmth, went far beyond an admiration for his scientific abilities. When he died, it is significant that one word that recurred in the tributes paid to him was ‘integrity’.

Sir Harold Himsworth

[Biogr.Mem.Roy.Soc., 1972, 18, 267-308; Brit.med.J., 1972, 1, 448; Lancet, 1972, 1, 499; Times, 5 & 9 Feb, 1972]

(Volume VI, page 222)

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