Remembering John Harris

06 October 2020
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John Harris, founder of the Helene Harris Memorial Trust (HHMT) that led to the inception of Ovarian Cancer Action, has passed away. 

Celebrating the life of an inspirational leader and visionary 

When his wife Helene was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1984, John Harris was determined to seek the best treatment and the most experienced specialists, to increase the odds of a cure. 

He visited the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, where, sitting in the specialist’s office, he was surprised to learn that the UK and US had very different approaches to treatment. Up until then, these two great, medically advanced nations had had no dialogue and no sharing of knowledge. The clinician was eager to know more. Despite their best efforts, within a few months of that visit, ovarian cancer sadly claimed Helene’s life. But even in grief, the Harris family’s first instinct was always to act. 

Together with renowned gynaecologist, the late Sir George Pinker, John resolved to set up the Helene Harris Memorial Trust (HHMT) International Forum on Ovarian Cancer. A global collaboration that would bring the world’s leading scientists together to pool knowledge, share best practice, determine the direction of research and publish its findings around the world. 

HHMT’s first meeting, in 1986, was a storming success and paved the way for the 14 successful meetings we have held since. Our latest Forum, held just last year, was led by Professor Fran Balkwill OBE and John’s daughter, Allyson Kaye MBE. There we gathered the greatest minds to explore how we can harness the power of immunotherapy for ovarian cancer patients, to create kinder and more effective treatments. 

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Fran Balkwill, Professor of Cancer Biology at Barts Cancer Institute and Chair of the HHMT Programme Committee, said: “John had an enormous impact on ovarian cancer research, bringing together clinicians and scientists from across the globe at a time when there was no internet communication. In founding the HHMT, John established an innovative, collaborative and multidisciplinary network that still endures to this day. My ovarian cancer research and most of my scientific collaborations have their origins in the HHMT meetings. It is one of the privileges of my life to have known John; he generated something so positive from a personal tragedy and I will never forget the power and sincerity of his contributions to the early HHMT meetings. John was also great fun and I remember how much he enjoyed the prize-giving elements especially in the Nobel lecture theatre in Sweden and even leading the singing on the conference bus. A memorable and multi-faceted man who made a difference to so many.” 

"In our international collaboration, his legacy will live on.”

CEO of Ovarian Cancer Action, Cary Wakefield

Professor Robert C. Bast Jr, Chair of the OCA Scientific Advisory Board, said: “John is one of the most exceptional people I have ever known. He transformed his grief to change our world for the better. The idea of the HHMT was brilliant. John was quite right, transatlantic communication regarding ovarian cancer left much to be desired in the 1980’s. His vision created so many collaborations and friendships, but also gave us a chance to assess from meeting to meeting our progress as an ovarian cancer research community.” 

Allyson then went one step further and founded Ovarian Cancer Action, a charity committed to raising awareness, funding research and giving a voice to everyone affected by the disease. Allyson grew from Chief Executive, to Chair and now President of the charity. Ovarian Cancer Action quickly captured worldwide attention and attracted a broad range of funders and within just three years, raised enough money to establish its own research facility. In 2006, the Ovarian Cancer Action Research Centre (OCARC), Europe’s first ever centre dedicated to ovarian cancer research, opened its doors on the Hammersmith campus of Imperial College London, in a research partnership with the Royal Marsden and the Institute of Cancer Research. 

To date, Ovarian Cancer Action has funded £12.3 million of research projects and continues to fund research at its Centre and at other leading institutions around the UK. A testament to the family’s determination to make ovarian cancer a survivable disease. 

“John was an extremely talented businessman and he brought that same success to HHMT and Ovarian Cancer Action.” said our Chief Executive Cary Wakefield. “In the 1980’s, most people hadn’t even heard of ovarian cancer. He did something extraordinary in bringing together the world's leading experts and now our progress knows no boundaries. In our international collaboration, his legacy will live on.” 

You can donate in John’s memory here.