Sir Henry Harris: a life in research

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By | From the Collections

I have recently catalogued the papers of Sir Henry Harris, the 29th Regius Professor of Medicine at the University of Oxford. Harris’s pioneering work into tumour suppressor genes has greatly influenced the cancer research field and along with colleagues he helped to develop some of the basic techniques for investigating and measuring genes along the human chromosome.

B0006421 Breast cancer cells Credit: Annie Cavanagh. Scanning electron micrograph 2006. WI no.

B0006421 Breast cancer cells. Credit: Annie Cavanagh. Scanning electron micrograph, 2006. Credit: Annie Cavanagh. WI no. B0006421

Harris began his career at Oxford at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology in 1952, initially working under Lord Florey – himself recognised for his development of penicillin for medicinal use. The Dunn School has a long tradition of great medical discoveries and prides itself on a commitment to research – an ethos Harris personally adopted in his own approach to academic life.

Harris achieved great professional eminence. In 1963, he succeeded Florey as Professor of Pathology at the Dunn School, greatly influencing the nature of taught clinical medicine at Oxford. His papers reveal that he was continually offered esteemed posts elsewhere but chose to remain at Oxford, where in 1979 he was appointed the 29th Regius Professor of Medicine, a prestigious accolade made by appointment of the Monarch.

This collection spans Harris’s life and career at Oxford through his correspondence with individual scientists, societies and external organisations, working papers and laboratory notebooks as well as lecture notes and material relating to his publications. The collection focuses heavily on research, demonstrating that despite personal success, Harris continued to be passionate about experimental research.

There is much material relating to one of Harris’s biggest breakthroughs – as head of the team that discovered the tumour marker Ca Antigen – a huge step in the history of cancer research.

The collection contains a series of eight laboratory notebooks which date from 1952 documenting the early work that contributed to his DPhil, right up to 2002 and proposals for new experiments. The notebooks show the day to day struggles, frustrations and – in Harris’s case – successes, that define the working life of a scientist, offering a unique insight into Harris’s way of working and research practices.

Additionally, the collection is filled with correspondence, offering a glimpse into the engagement between leading scientists and academics. The correspondence works to reveal the level of Harris’s success and reputation, as he received multiple requests inviting him to collaborate on big commercial projects.

Lincoln College Oxford

Lincoln College, Oxford University.

Harris was a member of Lincoln College; a relationship he continued to honour even after his appointment to Regius Professor, which itself has a long established association with Christ Church College.

The collection reveals Harris’s involvement with the college – attending events and lectures, serving on committees and his society memberships.  This shows the fullness of Harris’s life at Oxford, where he continued to be an active figure even after his retirement.

The full collection is now catalogued as PP/HHA in the Library catalogues. You can learn more about Harris from his autobiography, The Balance of Improbabilities: a scientific life.

 Author: Alice Mountfort is an archive assistant Wellcome Library.

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