Harington, Charles Robert

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(b. Llanerfyl, North Wales, 1 August 1897; d. London, 4 February 1972)

biochemistry, medical research administration.

Harington was the elder son of Rev. Charles Harington and Audrey Emma Bayly. His grandfather was Sir Richard Harington, eleventh baronet of Ridlington; Harington was thus a member of one of the ancient English families, tracing his ancestry back to the twelfth century, and grew up in a long tradition of service in the law, church, and army. At preparatory school in Malvern Wells, he contracted tuberculosis of the hip, which left him with a severe limp and kept him out of school for six and a half years. Nevertheless, he enrolled at Malvern College when he was seventeen. From there Harington won a mathematics exhibition to Magdalene College, Cambridge, in 1916. Family sentiment, to which was added medical advice, dissuaded him from an initial intention to follow a career in engineering. He switched to reading natural sciences and took a first in Part I of the tripos examinations before transferring to Edinburgh in 1920. There he did research with the pharmacologist George Barger and took a Ph.D. in 1922.

Harington was then appointed research assistant in the department of therapeutics at the Royal Infirmary but in 1932 was lecturer in pathological chemistry at University College Hospital Medical School, London. Here he was subsequently reader (1928) and professor (1931). The first year of his appointment was spent in New York, where he worked with D.D. Van Slyke at the Rockefeller Institute; and for shorter periods he worked with H.D. Daking and Otto Folin. It was in London, though, that he did the very important work on the biochemistry of the thyroid gland that secured him election to the Royal Society in 1931. In 1933 he published The Thyroid Gland: Its Chemistry and Physiology, which remains a classic of endocrinology.

A member of the Biochemical Society from 1921, Harington was its secretary from 1930 until 1942. From 1938 he served on the Medical Research Council, and from 1941 to 1945 on the Agricultural Research Council as well. Harington married Jessie McCririe, a physician, in 1923; they had a son and two daughters. Thesecond part of Harington career is intimately associated with his directorship of the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR), where he succeeded Sir Henry Dale in 1942. In 1944 he was awarded the Royal Medal of the Royal Society. In 1962 he retired from the NIMR. He was awarded the Gold Medal in Therapeutics from the Society of Apothecaries in the same year. Harington held honorary doctor of science degrees from Paris (1945), London (1962), and Cambridge (1949). He was knighted in 1948 and made K.B.E. in 1962. The first nonmedically qualified director of the NIMR, he received another token of respect for the way in which he fused medical and chemical research when he was elected an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in 1963.

The symptoms of thyroid disorder were first recognized in the latter part of the nineteenth century. In 1871 C. H. Fagge associated sporadic cretinism (impaired neurological development) in infants with thyroid atrophy. Shortly afterward W. M. Ord reported atrophy of the thyroid in cases of the then newly described Gull’s disease, which he renamed myxedema.Goitrous patients whose thyroid was removed improved at first, but they later developed symptoms of myxedema. At the turn of the century confirmation that the thyroid contained iodine supported early use of iodine, and explained the fact that burned sponge had for centuries been a recognized remedy for goiter. E. C. Kendall first purified such a substance from the thyroid in December 1914 and named it thyroxine. It was Harington who determined the structure of thyroxine and suggested how it was synthesized, in a series of papers in the late 1920’s. Harington suggested that thyroxine was formed by the oxidative coupling of two di-iodotyrosine molecules with the loss of one alanine side chain:

This process is associated with transformations within the protein molecule thyroglobulin. Harington synthesized thyroxine (T4) and thyronine, and reported that the synthetic thyroxine had been used clinically in the cure of hypothyroidism.

In addition to his research on the thyroid gland, Harington worked on the immunology of the endocrine system. In 1937 he produced antisera to thyrotrophin by prolonged injection of anterior pituitary extracts into rabbits. In 1946 he elucidated the hypersensitivity mechanism of contact dermatitis in munitions workers handling tetryl via its reaction. and antigenicity, in coupling with tissue protein.

Harington’s perspective on his own work was always broad, as demonstrated by the synthetic treatment of physiology, pathology, and biochemistry in his 1933 book on the thyroid gland. He brought this ability to see the scope and potential of very different aspects of medical research to his role as director of the NIMR. Initially head of the division of biochemistry, he gave full attention to administration from 1955 on, and prided himself on an active role in leading and coordinating the institute’s various programs of research. These principles were expressly portrayed in a number of lectures on research strategy, such as the Linacre Lecture, ’ The Place of the Research Institute in the Advance of Medicine’ (1958), and the Shattuck Lecture (1951).


I.Original Works. A full list of Harington’s scientific papers is in Himsworth and Pitt-Rivers (see below). His works include The Thyroid Gland: Its Chemistry and Physiology (London, 1933); “Thyroxine: Its Biosynthesis and Its Immunochemistry,” in Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, B132 (1944), 223–230, the Croonian Lecture; “Twenty-five Years of Research on the Biochemistry of the Thyroid Gland.” in Endocrinology, 49 (1951), 401–416; “The Role of the Basic Sciences in Medical Research.” in New England Journal of Medicine, 244 (1951), 777–785; Leadership in Scientific Research: Sir David Russell Memorial Lecture (London, 1958); and “The Place of the Research Institute in the Advance of Medicine,” in Lancet (1958), 2, 1345–1351.

II. Secondary Literature. Harold Himsworth and Rosalind Pitt-Rivers, “Charles Robert Harington,” in Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 18 (1972), 267–308.

Neil Morgan