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Harry Charlton1939 – 2023

In piam Memoriam

All members of the Department will be sad to hear of the death of Harry Charlton, Emeritus Reader in Neuroendocrinology at the Department of Human Anatomy and Genetics and Emeritus Fellow of Linacre College, University of Oxford.

Harry was born Henry Marshall Charlton on 10 March 1939 in South Shields, Tyne and Wear. He studied Zoology at Corpus Christi College, University of Oxford, initially on a scholarship as an undergraduate student, then continued to graduate study. In 1970, he was appointed Fellow of Linacre College, and was appointed Reader in Neuroendocrinology in 1990. Four years later, in 1994, Harry was elected Fellow of the Royal Society. He retired in 2006, becoming Emeritus at the Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics and Linacre College.

Harry was an outstanding endocrinologist whose research made significant advances to our knowledge of mammalian reproductive processes. Of particular note were his contributions to physiological analysis of the hypogonadal (HPG) mutant mouse, which due to a lack of gonadal development, has been valuable to understanding how the function of the hypothalamo–pituitary axis functions as an integrated unit. Harry discovered that these mice have extremely low levels of pituitary gonadotrophins, but full sexual maturation can be achieved with episodic, rather than continuous, treatment with gonadotropin hormone-releasing hormone (GnRH) to restore the pituitary gland. These results were outlined in his major paper ‘The Effects of Daily Administration of Single and Multiple Injections of Gonadotropin-Releasing Hormone on Pituitary and Gonadal Function in the Hypogonadal (hpg) Mouse’.

Harry Charlton Bundle of his May.jpg© Harry at the 'Bundle of His' 100th Meeting 24 May 2000 at St John's College - Gillman & SoameHarry was also a pioneering immunologist. While generations of researchers have believed the brain to be immunoprivileged, Harry’s work led to a series of experiments using cerebral implants that demonstrated the brain is in fact not an absolutely privileged site. Rather, these experiments found that tissues of the central nervous system express class I MHC molecules, which help the immune system recognise foreign substances, and also that the site of a transplantation is relevant to the immunological response. Harry also made major advances in our understanding of hormonal rhythms, the function of the pineal gland, and the immunological consequences of using viral vectors for gene therapy.

Alongside his scientific pursuits, Harry was a great lover of gardening, hill walking in the Lake District and the Isle of Mull, and playing Real Tennis at Merton College.

While he was a student at Oxford, Harry met his wife Margaret, a medical student in the Radcliffe Science Library, who passed away in October 2019 after a 55-year marriage. They are survived by their two children, Andrew and Jennie, and three Grandchildren, Luke, Isobel and Inka.

Many colleagues are writing to me to share tributes to Harry:

“He was such an inspiration to us newbies when we started out in our tenured posts. Always there to support and offer titbits of advice. A great scientist and educator who will be sorely missed but who leaves a terrific legacy." (Irene Tracey, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford and Honorary Professor at DPAG).

"He was one of the most generous people I knew in the long history of my involvement with the department." (Peter Belk, Head of Digital Media and Communications at DPAG).

"I came to work with Harry in 1973 when I joined the Anatomy Department as a Departmental Demonstrator. I did, of course, know about his research because we both worked on different aspects of the reproductive cycle of the short-tailed field vole Microtus agrestis. The lab on the top floor was a hive of industry with many graduate students and all of us working on different aspects of the control of seasonal breeding, circadian rhythms, pituitary, ovarian and testicular function and melatonin and the pineal gland. We had to make regular trips to Wytham Woods to collect voles. All of this went on in term with a heavy teaching load particularly in the D.R. Harry was always a great supporter of undergraduate teaching too whether in practical classes or lectures.

    And then the call came about this mutant mouse, the hypogonadal mouse, and this provided Harry with the ideal tool to investigate pituitary control and really made his name. All of us got involved with the experiments to provide episodic treatment with GnRH every two hours. I well remember doing a night shift and trying not to fall asleep at about 4am when interrupted by the night watchman in full combat gear.

    Harry had a wicked sense of humour. We had a yearly group lunch and once we went to Gees. On arrival Harry was asked what name the booking was in – with a straight face Harry replied “Mr H.P. Gonad” and the waiter couldn’t understand why we all collapsed in laughter.

    Harry was greatly and rightly respected within the scientific and particularly reproductive physiology community at large. Recognition came in the form of the FMedSci and the FRS but he was also awarded in 2003 the prestigious Marshall Medal from the Society for the Study of Fertility (now SRF).

    Harry was a man who was excited by the challenges of his wide-ranging research interests but he approached everything with huge enthusiasm whether it was enjoying of a game of real tennis with Geoffrey Harris or holidays in the Lakes and on Mull with family and friends or the fireworks party that he and Margaret held for many years. He was a joy to be with and there was never a dull moment when he was around.  I feel privileged to have known him and to have been counted as a friend." (Anne Grocock (aka Anastasia to Harry)).

“Harry was a great colleague.  When I joined the Department of Human Anatomy in 2000, I wanted to refresh my knowledge on sexual differentiation, reproduction and reproductive endocrinology and decided to attended his lectures to the first year medical students.  I was stunned to see how much energy and enthusiasm he put into these lectures. He gave some of the most captivating lectures and showed huge passion.  I fondly remember our discussions during tea breaks in the Anatomy canteen and after the Friday lectures. Harry was visionary, he came up with the ideas how to reform the preclinical medical curriculum and proposed to build the Medical Sciences Teaching Centre.  He will be sadly missed, but his legacy will stay with us.” (Zoltán Molnár, Professor of Developmental Neuroscience at DPAG)

“Harry had a huge positive impact on me, on everyone else he came into contact with, on the university, and on science. It was a privilege to know him.” (Andrew Byrnes, former Wellcome Trust graduate student in the Charlton lab from 1993-97, now a Divisional Director at the FDA, Washington DC)

"Harry was a truly incredible man who has left an impressive legacy." (Rachel Hirst, former postdoctoral research scientist in the Wood group)

“Harry was a top bloke.” (Vivienne Wilkins, former Research Technician in the Charlton lab)

"On top of his sharp intellect and wit Harry cared deeply about fairness, equality and inclusiveness before they were a thing. He was a man of integrity and instilled these values in all who worked with him.” (Mary McMenamin, Departmental Lecturer at DPAG)

"Harry and I became close friends and colleagues, first during my tenure of a Nuffield Dominions Scholarship at Oxford for the degree, DPhil (1965-68), under the supervision of Geoffrey Harris, and then, after my return in 1971 as University Lecturer in Human Anatomy, and subsequently Tutorial Fellow in Physiology and Medicine at Brasenose. We were both equally irreverent and stimulated the phagocytes when necessary. Personally, I would just underscore his, and Margaret’s (Maigret, as Harry fondly called her)  hospitality, especially to Antipodeans and others lost among the “Dreaming Spires”. Harry’s ingenuity was exemplified by his brilliant use of the rabbit lawn mower.

“Geoffrey Harris FRS (the father of Neuroendocrinology), then the Professor of Human Anatomy was a keen and formidable squash player, having obtained a Blue for the game in Cambridge. So, Harris used Harry and myself as alternate partners to play, midday, on the Magdalen College Squash courts, after which we would repair to the Kings Arms to review strategy and discuss neuroendocrine advances...The ‘holy grail’ at that time was the isolation and characterization of, what turned out to be, the decapeptide gonadotropin releasing hormone, the ultimate proof of Geoffrey Harris’ hypothesis of the neurohumoral control of the pituitary gland. Harry switched from regular squash games to Real Tennis, after sustaining a ruptured Tendo Achilles”  (Professor George Fink MB BS (hons) MD DPhil FRCPE FRSM FPhysiol FRSB  FRSE, Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health University of Melbourne)



David J. Paterson

Head of Department