Obituary: Professor Harry Harris

David Hopkinson
Thursday 21 July 1994 23:02

Harry Harris, biochemist, geneticist: born Manchester 30 September 1919; Lecturer, Department of Biochemistry, University College London 1950-53, Senior Lecturer 1953-58; Reader in Biochemical Genetics 1958- 60; Professor of Biochemistry, London University 1960-65; Honorary Director, MRC Human Biochemical Genetics Research Unit 1961-76; Professor of Human Genetics, London University 1965-76; FRS 1966; FRCP 1973; Harnwell Professor of Human Genetics, University of Pennsylvania 1976-90 (Emeritus); married 1948 Muriel Hargest (one son); died Philadelphia 17 July 1994.

HARRY HARRIS was an outstanding scientist in post-war Britain in the field of human genetics.

His influence was most significant during the quarter-century 1950-75, but he continued as a powerful force on the world scientific stage after that when he moved to the United States in 1976 to work at the University of Pennsylvania until his retirement in 1990. He was a forceful personality and an excellent communicator, principally through his writing and informal debate rather than in the starchy setting of a university auditorium or lecture theatre. Through his books and scientific articles he affected the lives and careers of thousands of students and scientists throughout the world and his imprint on human genetics will still be fresh in their minds today.

Harry Harris was a product of Manchester Grammar School, studied for a medical degree at Trinity College, Cambridge, and almost immediately afterwards served in the Forces in the UK and in the Far East as a doctor. He reminisced occasionally about his prowess in diagnosing and treating varicose veins and suchlike while in the Services, but his true interests lay in the unusual and at that time unfashionable direction of human genetics. He was a student when genetics scarcely figured in the medical textbooks and before DNA had been discovered to contain the secrets of life. With the strong insight that he was to display in future years he recognised very early in his career the importance and the power of genetics and genetic analysis in man, its application to the chemistry of living things and the important contribution he could make to this field.

Attracted by a distinguished company of geneticists, including Lionel Penrose and JBS Haldane, he joined the Galton Laboratory at University College London in 1947. This august institution had already accepted for publication a paper by Harris on the inheritance of premature baldness based on his studies of airmen during his service with the RAF in Burma. Within a very short time several other research articles followed and one topic he studied in some detail was the genetics of diabetes, which incidentally is still a very live issue in human genetics today. Less than 10 years later, in a classical twist of fate, he himself developed a very severe form of diabetes, needing insulin injections two or three times a day, which sadly shortened his life.

In 1949 he also carried out some early work with Hans Kalmus, in the Galton Lab, on the genetics and the chemistry of taste. This involved devising tests to distinguish people by their ability to taste bitter/sweet substances and to show that this was a genetically determined characteristic. These early simple experiments were a pointer to the future development of Harris's career and his analysis of variation in normal healthy individuals and in their families, using chemical or to be more precise biochemical techniques.

His work during the next 40 years showed that genetic variation in man was not something rare and unusual and always associated with a dread disease, but commonplace, usually harmless and in the modern sense green and natural. Harris was the first to draw attention to the fact that we are all individually different in our genetic constitution and, using simple biochemical tests, was able to demonstrate that no two individuals except for identical twins are exactly alike in their bodily composition. This work, which demonstrated the widespread occurrence of genetic variation in man, prepared the ground for many of the present well-known genetic concepts and applied procedures such as the identification of individuals by DNA 'fingerprints', the prenatal diagnosis of disorder using genetic markers, the extensive heterogeneity of inherited diseases and the mapping of human genes on to our chromosomes.

Harris was a scientist driven by a vision first conjured up by another medical man in London. At about the beginning of this century, Archibald Garrod wrote extensively and eloquently about 'chemical individuality' and the importance of genetic factors in normal health as well as in clinical disease. Years later Harris was one of the very few people to recognise the significance of Garrod's ideas and to realise that modern techniques could directly illuminate the chemical and thus the genetic profile of an individual.

He made the subject of human biochemical genetics almost his own territory at that time, by publishing first an introduction to the subject in 1953, then a superbly informative monograph, Human Biochemical Genetics, in 1959 and then republishing Garrod's original Inborn Errors of Metabolism together with a modern commentary in 1963. Several other books followed, notably Principles of Human Biochemical Genetics in 1970.

Harris combined this heavy schedule of writing with a very strong programme of laboratory research and it was interesting to see over the years how the pattern of this laboratory work changed as the techniques evolved but the theme, the vision, remained constant and was always being driven forward with a great dynamism. Harris was very keen on the experimental work and was always ready to support trials of a new approach to a problem or a new piece of apparatus. Curiously he was not adept with equipment in the laboratory or in the home, and for example never trusted himself to drive a car even in his long residence in the United States, preferring to rely instead on the abilities of his ever-capable wife, Muriel.

His great strength throughout was to be able to analyse raw experimental data, sometimes literally taking it home for analysis, and often to extract much more out of it than the scientists who had done the experiments in the first place. This ability was sometimes hard to handle, by new recruits and old hands, but all who knew him recognised that science prevailed in the life of Harry Harris and he gave it everything he had.

(Photograph omitted)

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