Lives of the fellows

John Hans Sigmund Heller

b.25 September 1905 d.29 December 1974
PhD Prague(1927) MB BChir Cantab(1938) M(1948) MRCP(1948) FRCP(1969)

Hans Heller was born in Brno, Czechoslovakia, the son of a surgeon, Joseph Heller, and Valerie Katharine, daughter of Heinrich Schwarz, a merchant. He first studied chemistry at Vienna and Prague and gained his doctorate from the University of Prague in 1927. He became interested in pharmacology and was appointed research assistant to Professor E.P. Pick at the University of Vienna, where he began his life-long study of the control of water metabolism and the influence of the neurohypophysial hormones. Here he came under the influence of Otto Loewi who was perhaps responsible for Heller’s subsequent interest in the developing discipline of neuroendocrinology. In 1930 he became a medical student at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, but after taking the Natural Science Tripos he returned to a pharmacology post in Vienna. In 1935 he returned to London and completed his medical training at University College Hospital. Thereafter he remained in England and became a British citizen. He gained the Cambridge medical degree in 1938 and was awarded the MD in 1948, being elected a Fellow of the College in 1969. He worked first at University College Hospital and then as a Beit fellow at Oxford, and in 1941 he accepted an appointment at Bristol University, becoming their first professor of pharmacology in 1949. One of his major achievements over the next decade was to develop his department into a vibrant, productive laboratory of great international prestige, but which always retained a happy family atmosphere. It was a great joy to him when, at the beginning of the 60s, the whole of the first generation of his junior colleages were appointed in rapid succession to chairs at Manchester, London, Calgary and Liverpool.

Heller’s main scientific contribution was to endocrinology. He was chairman of the Society of Endocrinology when he died, and president of the European Society of Comparative Endocrinology from 1965 to 1969. He was editor of the Journal of Endocrinology from 1963 to 1974 and worked hard to create a high standard. He was author and editor of numerous books on endocrinology, but his great reputation was based on his personal investigations, published over four decades. While still an undergraduate at Cambridge he described an effect of neurohypophysial hormones in amphibia, and this broad approach of comparative endocrinology, embracing species from man and other mammals through birds and amphibia to fish and lampreys, eventually made him the pre-eminent world authority on pituitary peptide hormones and their evolution.

Throughout his professional life Heller retained his interest in clinical medicine and he was Dean of the Faculty of Medicine during a period of rapid growth in student numbers. He was especially proud to be a Fellow of the College; he kept his department active in medical teaching and he positively enjoyed lecturing to medical students. He acted widely as an examiner at other medical schools. He served on the council of the Society for the Study of Addiction for eight years.

In 1933 he married Josephine Gertrude, daughter of Ernst Libich, a civil servant and Doctor of Law. They had two daughters.

Hans Heller was a deeply cultured and dignified European with a scholarly knowledge of classical ancient history and archaelogy. He was a recognized expert on coins of the Greek cities of Asia Minor and was a Fellow of the Numismatic Society. He was also a prodigious traveller, taking all opportunities to further his research; collecting pituitaries from elephants in Africa and from sharks in Florida, or studying the effects of hormones on marsupials in Australia. He was equally at home talking about art, music, literature or politics. He was, above all, a lovable, kind and tolerant mentor whose stimulus was that of example and encouragement.

Sir Gordon Wolstenholme
V Luniewska

[Times, 8 Jan 1975; Lancet, 1975, 1, 175; J. Endocrinol., 1975, 64(3), 399-402]

(Volume VI, page 233)

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