Anita Harding (1952 - 1995) was the leading clinical scientist of her day and pioneer of neurogenetics.
Anita Harding was the leading clinical scientist of her day who sadly died shortly before her 43rd birthday, having been ill for only five months.
Her early death denied Harding the many accolades and appointments that her combination of personality and ability would inevitably have yielded. Neurology never benefitted to the full from the many further contributions and outstanding leadership that she would surely have provided. Harding’s clinical wisdom, enthusiasm, talent for research and extraordinary personality epitomise all that is valued most in a clinical scientist.
A pioneer of neurogenetics, she is remembered for the insightful way in which she anticipated the entry of molecular genetics into neurology. Despite her vision, Harding was unable to participate in the discoveries that modern molecular medicine made possible, and a generation of neurologists trained since the mid-1990s lost the opportunity of mentorship and supervision by an outstanding clinical neurologist. There is no sense in which these losses might be considered speculative or judged ambiguous. Anita Harding was on a trajectory to greatness that was unstoppable. Her achievements in a career that was active from 1977 until a few days before her death were already outstanding and, as the leading clinician scientist of her generation working in the UK, Harding already ranked as a major figure in late twentieth-century world neurology.
Training in medicine at the Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine, she graduated in 1975, winning a number of undergraduate prizes. As a student, she visited the neurological department of the Montréal General Hospital. After hospital appointments at the Royal Free with Professor Dame Sheila Sherlock and P. K. Thomas, and in Oxford, she worked first at the National Hospital in 1977 and subsequently joined Cedric Carter as a research fellow in the MRC Clinical Genetics Unit at the Institute of Child Health. Thus began the work that was to shape her short career. First, she classified monogenic diseases of the nervous system, with an emphasis on the hereditary ataxias and peripheral neuropathies.
These studies formed the basis for her doctoral thesis on ‘The Hereditary Ataxias and Paraplegias: A Clinical and Genetic Study’; for this work, she was awarded the Clinical Genetics Society prize and the Edith Pechey Phipson Postgraduate Scholarship from her medical school. Later, she reworked the text into a monograph on The Hereditary Ataxias and Related Disorders (1984). Her single most important discovery, published in Nature with Ian Holt and John Morgan-Hughes in 1986, was the first identification of a mitochondrial DNA mutation in human disease and the concept of tissue heteroplasmy of mutant mitochondrial DNA. Anita also published on the spectrum of trinucleotide repeat disorders in neurodegenerative disease, and on the population genetics of diseases showing ethnic or geographic restriction. She secured substantial grant support for her work, supervised five doctoral theses, wrote almost 200 original articles, over 100 reviews or chapters, edited 3 books in addition to her monograph, gave 100 presentations at scientific meetings, and delivered more than 200 invited lectures in the United Kingdom and abroad
In the year before taking up her post as senior lecturer and honorary consultant at the Institute of Neurology in 1986, Harding visited laboratories in Cardiff (UK), the California Institute of Technology, Massachusetts General Hospital, Seattle, Duke and Denver (USA). These visits proved pivotal in matching her clinical expertise with a knowledge of the emerging discipline of molecular genetics. The subsequent rise in her career was rapid. She was appointed reader in the University of London and honorary consultant neurologist to the National Hospital in 1987, elected to a personal professorship in 1990, and to the post she never occupied as head of the university department in 1995.
That so much was achieved by the age of 43, in a career that was fully active for only ten years, is sobering; that it was done in a style from which respect and friendships grew exponentially is a mark of her personality.
Queen Square: A History of the National Hospital and its Institute of Neurology, https://www.nationalbrainappeal.org/product/queen-square-history-book/