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Biographical entry Huggins, Charles Brenton (1901 - 1997)

Hon FRCS 1959; MD Harvard 1924; Hon DSc Acadia 1946; Hon MSc Yale 1947; Hon DSc Washington 1951; Hon DSc Leeds 1953; Hon DSc Torino 1957; Hon LLD Aberdeen 1966; Hon FRCS Edinburgh 1959; Hon FACS 1963.

22 September 1901
Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada
12 January 1997


Nobel prize winner, scientist and outstanding urologist, Charlie Huggins changed forever the way scientists regard the behaviour of cancer cells. He was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, on 22 September 1901, the son of Charles Edward Huggins, a pharmacist, and Bessie Marie née Spencer. He was educated at Acadia University, Nova Scotia, before studying medicine at Harvard, where he received his MD in 1924. Specialising in surgery, he went to the University of Michigan and then joined the faculty of the University of Chicago in 1927.

Having specialised in urology, he happened upon the discovery that urothelium and prostatic tissue could induce heterotopic bone formation in adjacent tissues. This led him in turn to isolate a phosphatase in the prostate and to rediscover what John Hunter had noticed in the mole, that the prostate was dependent on male hormones. Early in the 1940s, working with Clarence Hodges and William Wallace Scott, Huggins showed that blocking androgen production with oestrogens could retard the growth of metastases in prostate cancer, often with dramatic relief of pain. A decade later he showed that some breast cancers were also dependant on specific hormones which could be removed by oophorectomy and adrenalectomy. In 1951 he became founder-director of the Ben May Laboratory for Cancer Research, where he trained and inspired numerous medical scientists. In 1966, he received the Nobel prize in physiology or medicine, which he shared with Peyton Rous, the virologist. It was Rous who first truly recognised the importance of Huggins' discovery, which, "far transcends it's practical applications", in that cancer cells could no longer be regarded as anarchic, but were subject to controls, and therefore were in theory curable. It was not long before chemotherapy for cancer was introduced. It was Huggins who stimulated Elwood Jensen to identify oestrogen receptors in breast cancer and it was Huggins who developed an experimental model of human breast cancer that was sensitive to hormones.

Despite his outstanding abilities, Charlie Huggins was a simple man with great charm, who liked nothing better than to work with able young researchers. He managed to evade administration with unusual skill to get time at his research bench. He advised his students: "Discovery is for the single mind, perhaps in company with a few students", and exhorted them: "Don't write books. Don't teach hundreds of students. Discovery is our business. Make damn good discoveries."

In 1927, he married Margaret Wellman, a nurse at the University of Michigan, who became a collaborator in his research and helped edit his papers. They had one son, Charles Edward, who died in 1989, and one daughter, Emily Wellman Huggins Fine. There are seven grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. He died on 12 January 1997, aged 95 years.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Nobel organisation; University of Chicago Hospitals].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England