Lives of the fellows

John O'Hara Tobin

b.4 January 1919 d.5 February 2007
BM BCh Oxon(1942) Dip Bact(1948) MRCPath(1963) FRCPath(1970) MRCP(1971) FRCP(1979) DM(1991)

John Tobin was a virologist and a former director of the Public Health Laboratory Service in Oxford. His father, Charles Tobin, a New Zealander, died when he was two years old and so he was brought up by his mother on the Wirral. During his education at Liverpool College and Keble College, Oxford, he was an enthusiastic sportsman, becoming captain of the university hockey club. He qualified in medicine in 1942 and was a house surgeon and casualty officer in Bath, before joining the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1943. John was bored working at a base hospital in Tunis, so volunteered for the Airborne Division. He was dropped at Arnhem, captured, survived prisoner-of-war camps, and was eventually liberated by the Russians.

After the war John became a bacteriologist, initially in Oxford, then in Manchester. Here he met Barbara Glason, a student in the laboratory, whom he married. It is typical that he should be attracted to a new field of microbiology. In the 1950s, at the dawn of clinical virology, he began to publish papers, for example elucidating various manifestations of Coxsackie virus infections. After two years at the University of Minnesota, working on the growth of polioviruses in cell culture, he continued the work at the MRC biological standards department at Hampstead in London, contributing to the development of the Salk-type polio vaccine. Moving back to Manchester to direct the Public Health Laboratory, John investigated congenital and neonatal viral infections, set up a rubella screening service for pregnant women, and helped to develop a rubella vaccine. He worked closely with physicians and created a rapid comprehensive virus diagnostic service.

In 1975 John returned to Oxford as director of the Public Health Laboratory, and followed Fred MacCallum [Munk’s Roll, Vol.X, p.310] as virologist. Here he proved that cytomegalovirus (CMV) infections of renal transplant patients may be transmitted in the donor kidney, and with H Gunson, instituted a CMV-seronegative blood bank. The immunofluorescent techniques used for rapid viral diagnosis proved useful in the investigation of the then recently discovered Legionnaire’s disease, caused by a bacterium infecting air conditioners in the USA. John found that pneumonia in renal transplant patients was due to taking showers in legionella-infected water.

In ‘retirement’ he continued to work on legionella as a demonstrator in bacteriology at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology at Oxford, in the laboratory of James Porterfield.

John was an enthusiast and expert in so many fields, perhaps because his free ranging mind led him to investigate any unexpected infection. As a result he published more than 120 scientific papers covering at least 14 different micro-organisms. He was always approachable and encouraged his staff to follow ideas, and search out pathogens, often in an unconventional way. An example from the 1970s: taking blood samples from sheep (Jacob’s rams) in a snowy field, searching for the source of a Q fever outbreak in schoolchildren.

He served on many committees, particularly for the MRC, over 20 years. His talent as a silversmith was evident when he donated crafted pieces to St Cross College, Oxford, of which he was a fellow. He was also a wood turner and a canal boat enthusiast.

John would try his hand at anything, he was kind, with never a cross word or rebuke, always supportive and encouraging, and very popular with his staff. In his words: “You can disagree with someone as long as you are not disagreeable.” Many people are indebted to him as a great teacher, researcher and leader. In his later years, he was progressively afflicted by pulmonary emphysema, but his mind remained sharp and inquisitive to the end.

Mary Warrell

(Volume XII, page web)

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