Lives of the fellows

Harold Percival (Sir) Himsworth

b.19 May 1905 d.1 November 1993
KCB(1952) MRCS LRCP(1928) MB BS Lond(1928) MRCP(1930) MD(1930) FRCP(1938) FRS(1955)

Harold Percival Himsworth, always known as ‘Harry’, was a distinguished clinical scientist at a time when modern clinical science was at an important stage of development. He was an ebullient and enthusiastic teacher, and professor of medicine at University College Hospital between 1939 and 1949. He then became secretary of the Medical Research Council, a post which he held with flair, great administrative ability and outstanding success.

Harry was educated at King James Grammar School, Almondbury, Yorkshire, before going on to University College London and University College Hospital medical school. Modern clinical research in Britain was just beginning and UCH was a major centre in its development, with leaders such as Thomas Lewis [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IV, p.531], T R Elliott [Munk's Roll, Vol.V, p.119] and Wilfred Trotter active on the staff as clinical academics holding full-time appointments. Such posts were rare and had only been developed in the London medical schools after the end of the first world war. Harry achieved his MD in 1930, the year that he became first assistant to T R Elliot, the first full-time professor of medicine at UCH. Himsworth held the prestigious Beit Memorial fellowship. His contemporaries were to included John McNee [Munk's Roll, Vol.VIII, p.317], Ronald Grant (q.v.), John McMichaeKq.v.), Horace Smirk (q.v.), Edward Wayne (q.v.) and George Pickering [Munk's Roll, Vol.VII, p.464] Himsworth concentrated his early work on diabetes and he was the first to distinguish insulin-sensitive and insulin-insensitive types of the disease. In 1939 it was no surprise to his colleagues when he was chosen to succeed Elliott as professor of medicine. His students recall his infectious enthusiasm as a teacher and he inspired many to distinguished careers in academic medicine. Always interested in nutrition, his research now turned to the possible lack of essential aminoacids in the aetiology of liver disease. Whilst his experiments in the rat, conducted with L E Glynn, were promising, it became clear that in this instance man did not behave like the rat.

In 1949, after a short period as a member of the Medical Research Council, Himsworth became its secretary; at this time the secretary was not a member. Because of changes to the research councils after the Trend report, he became a member and deputy chairman in 1967. At that time the circumstances of the job were just right for his abilities; it was once said that he presided over the MRC in its Periclean age. During his period in office budgets rose not only steadily but fast in real terms, sometimes around 15% per annum and throughout most of his term of office he reported directly (monthly and personally) to the Lord President of the council - a senior cabinet minister without departmental responsibilities. This arrangement, which Harry Himsworth much valued, arose after the first world war. Its origin is described by him in his Harveian Oration, 1962: ‘ ... for it is only insofar as a research council can maintain a reputation for scientifically objective advice and policy that it can serve either society or the world of research. It was a perceptive appreciation of these facts that led a Committee of Government, under the chairmanship of Lord Haldane in 1918, to lay down the principle that research should be independent of the interests concerned with its application.’

These financial and administrative arrangements enabled Harry Himsworth to run the MRC on the basis of his own philosophy. This philosophy is well illustrated by another quotation from his Harveian Oration, when he talks about ‘research’ as opposed to ‘development’: ‘Research being enquiry into the secrets of nature, the condition for its effective prosecution is an undivided attention to the phenomena of the natural events under study. Human needs or wishes are, in this context, aberrations. It is essentially a voyage of discovery. As such it cannot be charted in advance, and only in the broadest terms can the aim of any individual project be formulated. All that organization can do is to chose the right man as leader, equip him with men and materials and trust to his judgement. In research, policy expresses itself not by prescription but in the informed selection and variety of projects for support, so that over the subject as a whole the approach is sufficiently comprehensive to provide, as far as is humanly possible, for any eventuality or opportunity that may arise.’

Himsworth had a strong personality, a great deal of kindness and personal charm, and a remarkable ability to understand many diverse kinds of research from the most fundamental laboratory studies to areas such as social psychiatry; he disliked delegation. During most of his time as secretary of the MRC the work of the council could be carried out without the need for subsidiary boards or grants committees. Everything that needed to go to committee went to the council itself - and Harry dominated the council. Partly because of this, and his amazing capacity for work, he had a real knowledge of all the work that council supported. He was in a position to achieve many important things and he did.

After the setting up of the National Health Service, he ensured that the MRC, in cooperation with the Department of Health, set up a clinical research board, initially chaired by Sir Geoffrey Jefferson [Munk's Roll, Vol.V, p.213], in which Himsworth himself played a major role. During his secretaryship, which lasted until 1968, the regular annual increase in the budget allowed the council to create more than eighty new research units. Most of these were located within universities and approximately half were dedicated to clinical subjects. Himsworth was a highly successful mandarin in the corridors of power, yet he always remained friendly, affable and approachable, enjoying the most cordial of relationships with his unit directors. He played a major part in the development of the MRC council’s laboratory of molecular biology in Cambridge - one of the most prestigious and productive of laboratories in the world.

He did much to ensure that epidemiology played an important role in clinical research and he took a leading role in the early establishment of safety standards in radiation; all areas in which this country became a leader internationally. He had a strong interest in tropical medicine and was responsible for important developments, eight tropical units and other teams being established during his time as secretary. His particular brainchild, the Clinical Research Centre, was a dream inspired by his colleague and friend, Sir Thomas Lewis, whom he always held in high regard. The first director was to have been John Squire [Munk's Roll, Vol.VI, p.412], whose premature death before taking up his post was a severe blow. Nevertheless, the centre was established at Northwick Park in 1970 but is now sadly scheduled for closure Himsworth’s successors lacking both his vision and his understanding of how research may best be carried out by full-time MRC research workers in a clinical environment.

After his retirement, he became for some years chairman of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, subjects that had been of particular interest to him during his time as secretary of the MRC council. He chaired an enquiry into the medical and toxicological uses of CS gas, following its use in Londonderry in 1969. But his later years were mostly spent quietly at his home in St John’s Wood. He never lost his enthusiasm nor his love of stimulating conversation. He continued to write and published a book, Scientific knowledge and philosophic thought, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986, which included an appreciative preface by the Nobel Laureate, James Watson. Himsworth concluded that mankind’s material benefits had accrued more from the activities of scientists than from the musings of philosophers. Though there must have been some who disagreed with his decisions, and there were some - very largely from outside the field of medical research - who disagreed with his philosophy, he was widely liked and admired. The respect in which he was held is demonstrated by the number of honours he received both at home and abroad.

He had a deep interest in military history and was an accomplished fly fisherman. He lost his wife Charlotte after more than 50 years of happy marriage. They had two sons, one of whom - Richard - is a professor of medicine.

Sir John Gray
Sir Christopher Booth

[MRC News, Winter 1994,p.36; The Times, 12 Apr 1993;The Guardian, 11 & 29 Nov 1993; The Daily Telegraph, 11 Nov 1993; Univ.of Lond.Gaz.,Nov 1994; Univ.of London Magazine, l949,34,120-121]

(Volume IX, page 238)

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