Obituary: Sir Harold Himsworth
John Gray is an English political philosopher and former School Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Gray is a regular contributor to several national newspapers and lead book reviewer at the New Statesman. His latest book is 'The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths' published by Allen Lane.
Tuesday 09 November 1993
HAROLD HIMSWORTH was a distinguished clinical scientist at a time when modern clinical science was at an important stage of development and subsequently a very successful secretary of the Medical Research Council.
Himsworth was educated at King James' Grammar School in Yorkshire before going on to University College London, and University College Hospital Medical School. He worked in the medical unit of UCH from 1930, becoming Professor and Director in 1939. During this period he made important contributions to the clinical investigation and aetiology of diabetes mellitus and of liver necrosis. His students and those who worked with him will remember him as a person of enormous vitality with a tremendous enthusiasm for his work, and always full of ideas.
In 1949 Himsworth became Secretary of the Medical Research Council, the body responsible for administering Parliament's grant for medical research, at a time when circumstances were right for his abilities. It was once said that he presided over the MRC in its Periclean age. During his period of office (the role is similar to that of chief executive), budgets rose not only steadily but fast in real terms and for most of the time he reported directly (monthly and personally) to the Lord President of the Council, a senior cabinet minister without departmental responsibilities. This arrangement, which he much valued, arose after the First World War. Its origin is described by Himsworth in his Harveian Oration (1962):
For it is only in so far 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.
Himsworth's own philosophy is well illustrated by another quotation from the 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 organisation can do is to choose the right man as leader, equip him with men and materials and trust to his judgment.
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, so 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, the work of the MRC could be carried out without the need for subsidiary boards and he dominated Council. He was able to achieve many important things. He played a major part in the establishment of the MRC's Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge - one of the most prestigious and productive laboratories in the world. He did much to encourage epidemiology and clinical research and played an important role in the early establishment of safety standards in radiation; all areas in which Britain became a leader internationally.
He had a strong interest in tropical medicine and was responsible for many developments in that field. He initiated and developed the Clinical Research Centre, which, while it has itself had to be closed, is leading on to further developments in clinical research.
Though there must have been some who disagreed with his decisions and even some who disagreed with his policy, Harry Himsworth was widely liked and admired and received many honours both at home and abroad. He was appointed KCB in 1952 and elected FRS in 1955. A major factor in his life was the support he received from his late wife Charlotte, herself medically qualified, and his two sons.
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