A medical doctor, Harman started his career with a Ph.D in chemistry — he worked as a research chemist for the Shell Oil Co. One of the things he studied was how free radicals impacted petroleum products. He was also awarded 35 patents, including his invention of the “Shell No Pest Strip” fly killer. But it was those free radicals that really intrigued him: atoms or molecules that have “dangling bonds” that make them very reactive. Harman wondered how radicals impacted the human body, so he went back to school for his medical degree.
In 1954, Harman combined his two careers, proposing in a groundbreaking research paper that free radicals were the primary cause of breakdown in the human body — what is commonly called “aging”. Other scientists dismissed the idea, but he kept working on his “Free Radical Theory of Aging” and eventually others came around. Free radicals were proven to be a big factor not just in cellular breakdown of the aging process, but were linked to cancer, cardiovascular disease, strokes, and Alzheimer’s disease. That then led to ways aging and these diseases could be slowed down: with antioxidant supplements, no smoking, moderate alcohol intake, cutting polyunsaturated fats out of the diet, and getting regular exercise. “Dr. Harman is one of the most influential scientists of the past 50 years, bringing world-class science to what was once a backwater of biology,” says Prof. David Sinclair of Harvard Medical. Harman’s free radical theory “is a cornerstone of the aging field.” Dr. Harman clearly knew what he was talking about: he worked at the University of Nebraska Medical Center for 52 years, not retiring until he was 94. He died November 25 after a brief illness, at 98.