Lives of the fellows

Charles Nicholas Hales

b.25 April 1935 d.15 September 2005
BA Cantab(1956) MB BChir(1959) PhD(1964) MD(1971) MRCPath(1971) MRCP(1971) FRCPath(1980) FRS(1992) FMedSci

Nick Hales, head of the department of biochemistry at the University of Cambridge, made several major contributions to diabetes research. He was born in Stafford. His father, Walter Bryan Hales, was a consultant oral surgeon. His mother, Phyllis Marjory Hales née Beddows, owned a gown shop. Hales and his elder brother were evacuated to Montreal in Canada during the Second World War. When he returned to England, Hales was educated at King Edward VI Grammar School, Stafford, and, in 1953, followed his brother to Trinity College, Cambridge, to read medicine, studying biochemistry in his third year. He carried out his clinical studies at University College Hospital, serving as a house physician to Max (later Lord) Rosenheim [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.394].

Hales then returned to Cambridge to study for a PhD in biochemistry under the supervision of Sir Philip Randle [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web]. His interest in diabetes had been triggered by his family history: his paternal grandfather had died from diabetes, while his mother and younger sister, Judith, also developed the disease. When Hales began studying diabetes little was known about its causes or the biochemical mechanisms underlying insulin secretion and action. And, crucially, there were no methods for measuring the concentration of insulin in the blood. In 1960, Yalow and Berson had outlined a new type of biochemical test (or an immunoassay) using radioactive insulin and an insulin antibody, but the procedure was cumbersome and technically demanding. Hales set out to develop a simpler method, which he outlined in his PhD thesis, quickly establishing a reputation as an up-and-coming researcher.

In 1964, Hales was appointed as a lecturer in biochemistry at Cambridge. He was elected as a fellow of Downing College, taught undergraduates and saw diabetic patients at Addenbrooke’s Hospital. He continued his work on the measurement of insulin, attempting to find even more sensitive and specific methods. His 1968 paper in Nature looked ahead to the use of enzymes or viruses as alternative labels capable of providing even greater sensitivity, diagnostic methods that now form the basis of a worldwide multibillion dollar industry (‘Labelled antibodies and immunological assay systems’ Nature. 1968 Jul 13;219[5150]:186-9).

In 1970 Hales became head of the department and an honorary consultant in chemical pathology at the Welsh National School of Medicine in Cardiff. During his leadership he united academic research and diagnostic services, and effectively expanded the role of his department (which he renamed ‘medical biochemistry’).

In 1977 Hales returned to Cambridge as professor and head of the department of clinical biochemistry and an honorary consultant at Addenbrooke’s Hospital. He held these positions until his formal retirement in 2002.

During a sabbatical year in Seattle in 1984 he discovered, with Dan Cook, an ATP-sensitive potassium channel in insulin-producing cells, a key component in understanding how glucose instructs the pancreas to secrete insulin. This research eventually led to the development of an important class of antidiabetic drugs.

In 1988, he collaborated with David Barker, an epidemiologist from Southampton. They showed that low birth weight greatly increased the risk of diabetes and other diseases later in life and, in 1991, they put forward their ‘thrifty phenotype’ hypothesis. This suggested that the adaptations the fetus made to poor nutrition in the womb programmed development in a way that increased susceptibility to metabolic disease in the face of abundant nutrition later in life.

Hales was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1992 and received awards from the British Diabetic Association, the European Association for the Study of Diabetes, the Society for Endocrinology, the Association of Clinical Biochemists, the Royal College of Pathologists and the Biochemical Society. At the RCP, he was a Croonian lecturer in 1992 and a Baly medallist in 1995. In 2002 he was presented with the International Federation of Clinical Chemistry’s distinguished clinical chemist award.

Nick Hales was a member of the Medical Research Council from 1985 to 1990, and a member of the Association of Clinical Biochemists’ council and chair of its education committee from 1976 to 1979. He was on the Royal College of Pathologists’ council from 1992 to 1995.

He was married twice. In 1959 he married Janet May Moss. They had two sons. His elder son died in a boating accident in 1995. In 1978 he married Margaret Griffiths. They had one daughter. He died from metastatic prostate cancer and was survived by his wife Margaret, his son, Tim, and daughter, Kate.

RCP editor

[MRC News No 54 (March 1992), pp14-15; The Times 12 October 2005; The Lancet 12 November 2005 (Vol. 366, Issue 9498, p.1690); The Bulletin of the Royal College of Pathologists 133 January 2006, pp.63-4; Biogr Mems Fell R Soc 2010 56, 105-130]

(Volume XII, page web)

<< Back to List