Lives of the fellows

Harry Harris

b.30 September 1919 d.17 July 1994
BA Cantab(1941) MB BChir(1943) MA(1946) MD(1948) FRS(1966) FRCP(1973)

Harry Harris was an outstanding medical research scientist in post war Britain in the field of human genetics. His influence was most significant during the quarter century from 1950 to 1975, but he continued as a powerful force on the world scientific stage after that, when he moved to the United States in 1976 to work at the University of Pennsylvania, until his retirement in 1990. He was a forceful personality and an excellent communicator. Through his books and scientific articles Harry Harris effected the lives and careers of thousands of students and scientists throughout the world and his imprint on human genetics will stand firm well into the next millennium.

Harris was a scholar at Manchester Grammar School and he studied for a medical degree at Cambridge University and Manchester Royal Infirmary. He then served in the Forces in the UK and in the Far East as a doctor from 1944 to 1947. He reminisced occasionally about his early involvement in clinical practice but from the very start of his medical career his true interests lay in the unusual, and at that time unfashionable, direction of human genetics. He had been a student when genetics scarcely figured in the medical text books and well before DNA was known to encode genetic information. Even so, with the strong insight that he was to display in future years, Harris recognized the importance and the power of genetics and genetic analysis.

His work in human genetics began inauspiciously with a MD thesis and a paper devoted to the inheritance of premature baldness and was based on studies he carried out during his service with the RAF in Burma. He then took a research post at the Galton Laboratory at University College London in 1947 and within a short time several other research articles followed. One topic he studied in some detail was the genetics of diabetes mellitus and less than ten years later Harris himself was to develop very serious diabetes, which undoubtedly shortened his life.

In collaboration with Charles Dent [Munk’s Rolll, Vol.VII, p.148] in the department of medicine at UCL Medical School and William Warren in the department of biochemistry his research rapidly moved from the clinic into the laboratory. Using the ‘high tech’ procedures of those days, 2D paper chromatography and polarimetry, they made very significant strides in elucidating the genetics of cystinuria and other disorders associated with amino-acidurias. Harris also produced a monograph entitled An introduction to human biochemical genetics, Cambridge University Press, 1953, which was a remarkably comprehensive first attempt at a formal synthesis of ideas in this fast growing subject. At about this time he moved to the London Hospital Medical College, where Warren was now head of biochemistry. As senior lecturer and then reader in the department, Harris soon began new lines of research, in pharmacogenetics and gene product analysis. The former was concerned with the genetics and biochemistry of pseudocholinesterase and its numerous variants, whilst the latter was an exploration of genetic diversity amongst the plasma proteins (haptoglobins, transferrins, etc) using the technique of starch gel electrophoresis. This work was to become very important later when Harris moved, first to King’s College, London, in 1960, and then to the Galton chair at UCL in 1965. With Medical Research Council support he established the Human Biochemical Genetics Research Unit and extended electrophoretic analysis to human enzymes and their isoenzymes in normal healthy people. It was very rapidly discovered that genetic variation in man (and by implication, other species) was not something rare and unusual and was not always associated with a dread disease. Variation was shown to be commonplace and usually harmless. Harry Harris was the first to draw attention to the fact that we are all individually different in our genetic constitution and, using these biochemical tests, was able to demonstrate that no two individuals except for identical twins are exactly alike in their bodily composition. This work prepared the ground for many of the current well known genetic concepts and applied procedures, such as the identification of individuals by DNA ‘fingerprints’ and prenatal diagnosis using genetic markers. It also led directly into mapping human genes on chromosomes and to the demonstration of extensive allelic heterogeneity in inherited diseases.

Harry Harris was a scientist driven by a vision first conjured up by Sir Archibald Garrod [Munk's Roll, Vol.IV, p.347] at the beginning of this century. Garrod wrote extensively and eloquently about ‘chemical individuality’ and the importance of genetic factors in normal health as well as in clinical disease. Years later Harris was one of the very few people to recognize the significance of Garrod’s ideas and to realize that modern techniques could directly illuminate the chemical and thus the genetic profile of an individual. He made the subject of human biochemical genetics almost his own during most of his working life by his research and by his writing. In addition to the first introduction to the subject written in 1953, Harris produced a best selling monograph entitled Human biochemical genetics, Cambridge University Press, 1959, and then republished Garrod’s original Inborn errors of metabolism, London, Oxford Monographs on Medical Genetics, 1963, together with a modern commentary. Several other books followed, notably The principles of human biochemical genetics, Amsterdam, London, North-Holland Publishing, 1970, which was also a best-seller.

Harris combined his heavy schedule of writing with a very strong programme of laboratory research and it was interesting to see over the years how the patterns of work changed, as the techniques evolved. For example, on moving to the United States in 1976 he embraced the immunological methods for isoenzyme analysis provided by the newly emerging monoclonal antibody techniques. Soon afterwards, like everyone else, he was caught up with the so-called molecular techniques for direct analysis of DNA. From then on the originality of his approach was lost, but at least he had the pleasure of discovering that many of his early predictions were now testable and more often than not were found to be true.

D A Hopkinson

[The Independent, 22 July 1994]

(Volume X, page 199)

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