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23 December 2014
Obituary on Henry Harris.
One of Australia’s 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 Florey’s 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, Harris’s 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.
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
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
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
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 Harris’s 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, Henry’s first cousin once removed, Dr Newman
Harris, works in Sydney in my related field of pain management and drug
Written by Dr Andrew Byrne. Published by Australian Jewish News.