Lives of the fellows

John Macdonald Holmes

b.20 December 1906 d.27 April 1998
MB ChB Leeds(1931) MRCS LRCP(1932) MD(1935) MRCP(1935) FRCP(1953)

John Macdonald Holmes was a consultant neurologist at the Staffordshire General Infirmary. Known as ‘Angus’, he was born in Yorkshire and attended Bradford Grammar School, where he developed an interest in chemistry. History relates that experiments in his own home resulted in so unfortunate an explosion that he had to spend a lot of his time with his uncle, a general practitioner. It was the influence of his uncle’s extensive medical library that led to Angus’ interest in and determination to study medicine.

He entered the University of Leeds and qualified in 1931. Following house appointments at the Leeds General Infirmary, he held posts in experimental pathology and cancer research at the University. In 1933 he moved to London, taking London County Council appointments, but an increasing interest in neurology led him to house surgeon and house physician appointments at the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases, Queen Square. It was here he was much influenced by Sir Gordon Holmes [Munk’s Roll, Vol.V, p.195], Sir Geoffrey Jefferson [Munk’s Roll, Vol.V, p.213] and Kinnier Wilson [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IV, p.540]. In 1935 he obtained his MD from the University of Leeds, together with the MRCP.

In that same year he moved to Stafford, where, while entering general practice, he became a physician on the staff of the Staffordshire General Infirmary, then wholly staffed by general practitioners. He soon concentrated on neurology, a specialty not previously practised in Stafford, and gained an increasing reputation in surrounding areas, including regular consultative visits to Crewe and Wrexham.

In 1937 he married Mary Alice Bostock, always known as ‘Molly’, the daughter of Henry Bostock, chairman of Lotus Ltd, and their kindness and hospitality to friends and colleagues became legendary. They had no children.

On the outbreak of the Second World War he entered the RAMC as a medical specialist with the rank of major and served in a number of hospitals especially in the Middle East, later becoming commander of a Polish hospital in Palestine. Here he acquired a knowledge of Russian which, added to his knowledge of other languages, enabled him to translate medical literature into English. A posting to Northern Ireland enabled his wife to join him.

Leaving the services with the rank of lieutenant-colonel, he returned to Stafford as a physician and, with the development of the National Health Service in 1948, was appointed as a neurologist to an area north of the Birmingham region. He also later added regular visits to the Wolverhampton hospitals to his commitments. In 1954 he was co-opted to the staff of newly opened regional neurological and neurosurgical unit in Smethwick outside Birmingham. He remained a valued and popular member until his retirement in 1971.

His contribution to the literature started early in his career, and dealt especially with the influence of vitamin deficiency on the central nervous system. A classic paper published in 1956 in the BMJ dealt with the cerebral manifestations of vitamin B12 deficiency. Another paper examined the dosage of vitamin B12 in pernicious anaemia required to prevent neurological complications. In 1967 he joined with Edwin Bickerstaff in writing a paper warning of the cerebrovascular complications of the oral contraceptives which resulted in the Dunlop committee reviewing figures nationally, and reversing their previously over-optimistic comments on the safety of these preparations.

He was a man of wide interests outside medicine. An accomplished artist and pianist, art and music formed a great part of his life, as did a love of travel and an interest in languages, in several of which he was skilled. Italy was his main love, and on retirement he and his wife refurbished a villa in the Chianti Valley between Florence and Sienna where he was able to indulge his great interests. He did in fact undertake some neurological teaching at the nearby universities. His great joy was to look down from the terrace of his beautiful villa situated high over one of the most beautiful Tuscany valleys, and to show the view to the guests whom he and his wife loved to entertain.

He lived into his 92nd year, leaving behind many friends always cognisant of and grateful for his hospitality, and many younger neurologists who owe so much of their clinical acumen to his bedside training, his insistence on detailed history-taking and full and accurate note-taking. The impersonality of today’s computerized abbreviations would have been anathema to him, and he was of a generation who reached retirement just in time.

Edwin R Bickerstaff

[Brit.med.J., 1998,316,1909]

(Volume XI, page 272)

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