Childhood & Early Life
He was born on September 22, 1901, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada to Charles Edward Huggins and Bessie Maria Spencer as their elder son. His father was a pharmacist.
He studied in public schools in Halifax. In 1920 he completed his graduation by obtaining a BA degree from the ‘Acadia University’ located in Wolfville, Nova Scotia.
He then got enrolled at the ‘Harvard University’ in Boston, Massachusetts to study medicine and earned his MD in 1924.
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From 1924 to 1926 he did his internship at the ‘University of Michigan and thereafter he was inducted as an instructor in Surgery at the Medical School of the University in 1926, a post he served for a year.
He remained a member of the Faculty of the ‘University of Chicago’ from 1927, serving first as an instructor in Surgery from 1927 to 1929. After initiating his career as a surgeon, he made significant discoveries in urology, a subject that he specialized in while at the university.
Thereafter he joined as an ‘Assistant Professor at the ‘University of Chicago’ and held the position till 1933 following which he served as Associate Professor of the university until 1936.
During the 1930s he began his research on cancer, an ailment which at that time was treated by conducting surgery and applying radiation and not by drugs.
In 1936 he became a Professor of Surgery at the ‘University of Chicago’ and served in the position until 1962 following which he served the university as ‘William B. Ogden Distinguished Service Professor’.
He published a paper in 1941 that displayed the association between function of the prostate gland and the hormonal system. He discovered that the actions of the male hormone in a patient can be impeded by using female sex hormone estrogen, which would result in prevention of growth of prostate cancer. Thus hormone estrogen is considered the first medication that can be taken orally as a cure to cancer, which would give similar effect as removing the testicles surgically.
He conducted his first surgery of removing the adrenal glands completely in 1944 as an intense treatment to combat advanced cancer.
Meanwhile from 1951 to 1969 he remained Director of ‘Ben May Laboratory for Cancer Research’ at the ‘University of Chicago’ and carried on with his research work at the university till 1972.
His research work on cancer cells changed the earlier perceived notion regarding the behaviour of such cells as autonomous and self-perpetuating. Through his investigations he displayed that like normal cells of a body certain cancer cells also depend on hormonal signals to exist and develop, and that further development of tumors could be bogged down for some time at least when the cancer cells are deprived of the correct signals. This path-breaking discovery of Huggins brought around a new ray of hope and highly revived research of such a fateful disease.
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During the 1950s he began his investigations on breast cancer. He postulated that this ailment is also dependent on particular hormones and removal of the adrenal glands and ovaries, which are the origins of such hormones, can result in substantial reversion of breast cancers of advanced stage in almost one-third of women who were treated.
As it was difficult to ascertain as to which woman would benefit by undergoing endocrine surgery, he requested his colleague, Dr. Elwood V. Jensen to find out a procedure to analyse the estrogen-receptor content of breast cancers and apply that to ascertain response to hormonal treatment.
He discovered that breast cancer can be developed quickly by injecting a particular chemical in certain types of rats.
He worked on a small lab and conducted his experiments working directly on animals. To devote ample time for his research work, he often tried to avoid administrative responsibilities.
In 1972 he became the chancellor of the ‘Acadia University’. He held the position till 1979 following which he returned back to Chicago.
He received honorary degrees from several universities including a M.Sc. from the ‘Yale University’ in 1947 and a D.Sc. from the ‘Washington University’ in 1951 and that from the ‘Leeds University’ in 1953.
He remained fellow of many College of Surgeons including the ‘Royal College of Surgeons’, Edinburgh (1958); the ‘Royal College of Surgeons’ (hon.) (1959); and the ‘American College of Surgeons’ (hon.) (1963).
He was a member of the ‘American Philosophical Society’ and the ‘National Academy of Sciences’.
Personal Life & Legacy
On July 29, 1927, he married Margaret Wellman. The couple had a son and a daughter. His wife died in 1983.
His son Dr. Charles Edward Huggins was a physician and cryobiologist who helped in developing a procedure of freezing and reusing donated red blood cells in such a way that it can be stored for almost an indefinite period. Charles succumbed to pancreatic cancer at the age of 60 in 1989.
On January 12, 1997, Huggins died at his Chicago home at the age of 95 after several years of ill-health. He is survived by his daughter Emily Wellman Huggins Fine.