23 December 2014

Obituary on Henry Harris.

One of Australias great medical researchers Professor Sir Henry Harris died at his home in Oxford on 31 October 2014 aged 89.  Harris was hand picked by Howard Florey (of penicillin fame) for a career in medical research - and when Lord Florey retired in 1964 Harris was appointed to head his William Dunn School of Pathology in Oxford.  This he ran for over 30 years and continued an association until his death.  The institute was featured on our old fifty dollar bank note, adjacent to Floreys image. 
As exemplified by the single historical English Pope No prophet becomes famous in his home town.  So was Henry Harris who, after Sydney Boys High, University of Sydney and Melbourne University, lived and worked in Oxford for the rest of his life. 
While unfamiliar to most Australians, Harriss prodigious talents and energies were well known to his year members including my late father, John Justinian Byrne, Prof Jim Lance, Malcolm Coppleson, JG Richards and other doctors of their generation.  Henry started at Prince Alfred Hospital measuring sodium, potassium and chloride in severely ill hospital patients.  Melbourne had the only flame photometer in the country so my father, who lived near Mascot airport, would courier the specimens and with luck, the results were wired that evening to the Clinical Research Ward, sometimes too late to be of help such were the life-and-death conditions being treated. 
Harriss contributions to medical science were legion but his main interest appears to have been regarding malignant transformations, tumour suppressor genes and the re-emergence of cancer cells.  He pioneered induced cell fusion which allowed a multiple myeloma cell to produce any number of specific mono-clonal antibodies.  This work was adopted by others who introduced new and effective treatments for cancers as well as certain autoimmune diseases, some recognised by Nobel prizes.  For his services to medical science Harris was elected to the Royal Society in 1968 and received a knighthood from the Queen in 1993.  He served after Richard Doll as Oxford Regius Professor of Medicine for 13 years from 1979. 
My own tenuous connection with Henry Harris began with a hectic day spent with the great man on a brief visit to Oxford in 1971.  It was a revealing and rewarding glimpse into the researchers life for an antipodean medical student.  During a busy but unscripted day, Henry dealt with postgraduate students, journalists, laboratory, library and the like as well as fielding calls from a minister of the Crown, newspaper editor, overseas parties, etc, making me realise that a life in academe was neither boring nor was it easy! 
Years later in (partial) retirement Henry resumed a regular correspondence with my late father.  One of his last letters, all written in long-hand, spoke to his longing for Australia, saying that no matter how long they have lived there, Australians are never fully accepted by the English and yet, he wrote further, should he return to Australia after so long he might find little familiar from his youth, even among his own countryfolk.  Like others, Henry was bemused by my association with Judaism, writing with good humour that I may be sitting in his very seat at Central Synagogue! 
In another piece of serendipity, the treatment I was offered when suffering from lymphoma some years ago was based on Henry Harriss ground-breaking research, a monoclonal antibody drug called rituximab [Mabthera]. 
Henry was born in Russia whence his family migrated when he was four.  He is survived by his wife and three children.  By another chance, Henrys first cousin once removed, Dr Newman Harris, works in Sydney in my related field of pain management and drug dependency. 
Written by Dr Andrew Byrne. Published by Australian Jewish News.