Professor Anthony John Harmar
Wednesday 30 April 2014
Professor of pharmacology
Born: November 28, 1951; Died: April 10, 2014
TONY Harmar, who has died aged 62, was emeritus professor of pharmacology at the University of Edinburgh. He was awarded a personal chair in pharmacology in 2006 and was head of the university’s School of Biomedical Sciences from 2005 to 2008.
He was born in London, the son of Paul and Mary Harmar, and educated at St Paul’s School. He then studied biochemistry at Cambridge University where he completed his PhD in the MRC Neurochemical Pharmacology Unit under Les Iversen.
His doctoral research was into the function of octopamine in the rat brain. After two years it became clear however that octopamine was present but in only infinitesimal quantities, and probably had no major function in mammalian brains. The last year of his doctoral research developed therefore into a review of the octopamine receptor in cockroach brains. He moved to the Friedrich Miescher-Institut in Basel, Switzerland, where he worked on snail brains, consolidated his knowledge of French and German before moving to Bristol for two years’ work on substance P biosynthesis.
He arrived in Edinburgh in 1981 to work in the MRC Brain Metabolism Unit. The first great scientific thrill was the cloning of the human precursor for substance P, work which described as a tour de force of primitive molecular biology which involved, among other things, picking 10,000 plasmid colonies from agar plates and transferring them to nitrocellulose filters with cocktail sticks, a process which exhausted all supplies of cocktail sticks in Edinburgh.
He then turned his attention to hormone receptors and, after the cloning of secretin, parathyroid hormone and calcitonin in 1991, he realised that these would the first of a larger family of neuropeptide receptors. He and his team designed degenerate primers to isolate new members of this receptor family and cloned a new receptor for vasoactive intestinal peptide, VPAC2, which they concluded was vitally important for circadian rhythms.
The MRC Brain Metabolism Unit had closed and Professor Harmar transferred to Edinburgh University’s Division of Neuroscience at George Square in 2001. He had been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1996 and was heavily involved with the International Union of Basic and Clinical Pharmacology.
As well as a total commitment to his scientific work and research, his great interest in life was music. He played the piano well and sang in choirs, initially the Edinburgh Singers’ Choir, where he met his wife, Jillian; Cadenza, a small chamber choir, now one of Scotland’s finest and most exciting amateur mixed voice choirs, which he founded in 1992; and latterly the Edinburgh University Renaissance Singers.
He boasted of having grown up in the socialist heyday of the swinging sixties, and continued to express the rumbustious irreverence of that epoch in a wide-ranging series of public and private conversations. His targets included Bush’s and Blair’s war in Iraq, Michael Gove, the misuse of disabled seats on buses, religious fundamentalism and countless other enraging aspects of modern life. He was consistently hostile to those, whether of a religious or political bent, who were utterly convinced of the certainty of their own truths.
Disillusioned by the demise of the Labour Party’s ethical standards and radical voice and by the fact that the UK seemed set to be governed by conservative forces, irrespective of which party held a Westminster majority, Professor Harmar became increasingly convinced that Scotland, the country in which he lived for over half of his life, was right to seek independence. He was no traditional Scottish Nationalist, but he believed that at least in an independent Scotland some of his values had a chance of being realised.
He was diagnosed with a brain tumour in November 2012. He dealt with this stoically and continued his work at the university until January of this year and was awarded an emeritus professorship shortly before his death. He remained engaged, controversial and assertive until the end.
He is survived by his wife Jillian and by his sons, Thomas and William.
Professor Anthony John Harmar