Lives of the fellows

Henry (Sir) Harris

b.28 January 1925 d.31 October 2014
Kt(1993) BA Sydney(1944) MB BS(1950) DPhil Oxon(1954) FRCP(1976) Hon FRCPA(1976) Hon DSc Edin(1976) DM(1979) FRCPath(1980) Hon MD Geneva(1982) Hon MD Sydney(1983)

The cell biologist Sir Henry Harris was regius professor of medicine at the University of Oxford and head of the Sir William Dunn school of pathology there. He was born in Potchep, Russia, the younger son of Sam and Ann Harris. An unpublished version of his autobiography, still in his family’s possession, and provisionally entitled The sweet-makers’ grandson, gives some information about his early life in Russia, but since he did not remember this phase of his life, he decided not to include it in the published version, The balance of improbabilities: a scientific life (Oxford, Oxford University Press), which appeared in 1987.

When he was four, the family emigrated to Sydney, Australia, where Harris started at primary school. He was then educated at Sydney Boys’ High School and Sydney University, where he graduated BA in modern languages in 1944, before studying medicine and qualifying MB BS in 1950. In 1952 he won a travelling scholarship from the Australian National University and moved to Lincoln College, Oxford University. He studied under the Nobel prize-winning Howard Florey [Munk’s Roll Vol.VI, p.178], professor of pathology at the Sir William Dunn school of pathology, and was awarded his DPhil in 1954 after only two years of study.

Harris was then appointed director of a small British Empire Cancer Campaign research unit in the Dunn School. Here he declared his independence from Florey by not following his mentor’s advice on which research projects to pursue. Florey suggested he continue his work on chemotaxis, the subject of his DPhil thesis, but Harris decided he should work on dividing cells and he became interested in RNA (ribonucleic acid) turnover in such cells. His work convinced him that the then current hypothesis about messenger RNA as set out in the Nobel prize-winning work of the Frenchmen François Jacob and Jacques Monod was not entirely correct. Not surprisingly, this work was controversial and ensured that Harris’ name became known.

After a short spell as a visiting scientist at the National Institutes of Health in the USA, Harris returned in 1960 as head of the new department of cell biology at the John Innes Institute in Bayfordbury, Hertfordshire. In 1963 he was elected to succeed Florey as professor of pathology on the latter’s decision to relinquish the chair and accept the headship of Queen’s College. Cynics reportedly said ‘who is this little known “botanist” who has been appointed to the chair of pathology?’

As head of the Dunn school, Harris was able to broaden his research programme and attract considerable numbers of high quality graduate students, postdocs and senior visiting scientists. This ensured that the laboratory was a lively environment, fostering high quality research. Soon after taking the chair his discovery (with John Watkins) of artificial cell fusion hit the headlines and strengthened his reputation as an innovative and courageous scientist. This work was to have far reaching consequences in cell biology, genetics and cancer research. Harris himself, collaborating with George Klein in Stockholm, demonstrated the ‘suppression of malignancy’ in hybrid cells; work leading to the later identification of tumour suppressor genes. Again this work was controversial, but it certainly stimulated a great deal of discussion and much further experimentation. Indeed, exploring mechanisms of tumour suppression remained Harris’ abiding interest until the end of his life.

In 1979 Harris was elected as regius professor of medicine, Oxford University’s senior medical chair. Again this was a controversial appointment. Most clinicians thought that the post should be filled by a practising clinician, but the appointment confirmed the general opinion that Harris was not only an outstanding medical scientist, but also an efficient leader and administrator. Harris only agreed to accept the chair so long as he could retain the headship of the Dunn school, the base for his experimental work. This was agreed and this tenure (together with a further extension of his headship following the sad early death of Alan Williams, who had been elected to succeed him as professor of pathology in 1990, but died before taking up office) meant that Harris was actually head of the Dunn school for 31 years. Indeed, he was a regular presence in the department for 62 years, his attendances continuing until shortly before his death.

In 2000 Harris wrote a note, deposited in his archive, setting out what he considered to be ‘his main scientific contributions’. These were: the demonstration that much of the RNA synthesised in the cell nucleus is broken down there, and the proposal that the RNA that breaks down rapidly is not the messenger, but is synthesised on parts of the DNA that do not code for protein – much later known as ‘introns’; the development of the technique of cell fusion for the genetic and physiological analysis of somatic cells – the fused cells were viable and gave rise to mononucleate hybrid cells, later used for many purposes; the demonstration that the red cell nucleus could be reactivated and could once more become genetically active – these experiments demonstrated that so long as a cell retains its nucleus all the changes involved in differentiation are, in principle, reversible; the demonstration that the nucleolus, besides being the site of ribosomal RNA synthesis, was involved in some way in the transfer of genetic information from nucleus to cytoplasm; the development of the first systematic method for the determination of the order of genes along the human chromosome and the distance between them: ‘radiation hybrids’ – these experiments form the basis of all methods that use chromosome fragmentation for the analysis of DNA; and the discovery of tumour suppressor genes and the demonstration that they play a cardinal role in the genesis of tumours.

In addition to planning and carrying out experiments, Harris enjoyed writing. His style was simple, clear and unambiguous. His first book Nucleus and cytoplasm (Oxford, Clarendon Press) was published in 1968 and attracted much critical attention since it discussed several of the most controversial scientific issues of the time. In its prologue, Harris quotes from Robert Frost’s poem ‘The road not taken’, which explains his philosophy rather well: ‘Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.’

His second book Cell fusion: the Dunham lectures (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1970), from lectures delivered at Harvard University, covers perhaps the most productive period of his research. His later books include an autobiography, The balance of improbabilities, a collection of short stories, Remnants of a quiet life (Oxford, Twin Serpents, 2006) – fictional but mischievous, based on sharp observation of colleagues at work and play – and several historical works on cell biology. His output of high quality scientific papers was considerable (215 in the Wellcome archive) and continued to the end of his life (his last in August 2013).

Not surprisingly for someone of his distinction, Harris served on many local, national and international committees and advisory boards. He received many honours, including degrees, medals and prizes. He was elected to the fellowship of the Royal Society in 1968 and was knighted in 1993.

As professor of pathology, he held a fellowship at Lincoln College and, as regius professor of medicine, a studentship at Christ Church. Both these attachments gave him much pleasure and he was able to share his wide scholarship with non-medical colleagues at both colleges.

In December 1950, in Sydney, he married Alexandra Brodsky, a marriage that survived almost 64 years. They had three children, Paul, a lawyer, Helen, a linguist and author, and Ann, a scientist. As a scientist, Sir Henry Harris was a very public, much admired, but controversial; as a close-knit family man, he was much more private. He died suddenly but peacefully at home in Oxford and was survived by his family. The journey of the ‘sweet-makers’ grandson’ was truly remarkable.

Eric Sidebottom

[The Guardian 17 November 2014 – accessed 19 July 2016; The Telegraph 9 March 2015 – accessed 19 July 2016; J Cell Sci 2015 128: 4253 – accessed 19 July 2016; The Lancet 2015 385 (9978) 1616 – accessed 19 July 2016; Fusion: the newsletter of the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology Issue 14, Michaelmas 2015, p.19 – accessed 19 July 2016]

(Volume XII, page web)

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