Lives of the fellows

John Raymond Hobbs

b.17 April 1929 d.13 July 2008
BSc Lond(1953) MB BS(1956) MRCS LRCP(1956) MRCP(1958) DObst RCOG(1958) MD(1963) MRCPath(1963) FRCP(1972) FRCPath(1975)

John Raymond Hobbs (‘Jack’) was professor of immunology at the Westminster Medical School, London where he pioneered the development of bone marrow transplantation in the UK and helped to set up the world’s first unrelated bone marrow donor register. A physician and teacher at the forefront of research into clinical immunology and protein biochemistry, one of his most long-lasting achievements may be recognised in the work of the numerous students and researchers to whom, over the years, he passed on his extensive knowledge.

Born in Aldershot, he was the third of the four sons of Frederick Walter Hadyn Hobbs, a captain in the Army, and his wife, Anna Helena née Froseler, whose father, Hubert, was a farmer. After a peripatetic childhood due to various military postings, the family settled in his father’s home town of Plymouth. During the Second World War the sons were evacuated to Penzance to escape the bombing. Hobbs left school at 16 and became a pathology laboratory assistant.

In 1947 he enlisted in the RAMC to do his two years National Service and was posted to Egypt and Palestine. With the money he saved from his sergeant’s pay, he paid his fees at Plymouth and Devonport Technical College and gained a university entrance qualification in nine months. In 1950 he enrolled at Middlesex Hospital Medical School with a state scholarship and, during his time there, won seven prizes, revealing his lively, intelligent approach to his subject. He qualified in 1956 and did house jobs at the Middlesex, Central Middlesex, Brompton and Royal Free Hospitals.

At the Westminster Children’s Hospital, where he was a registrar from 1959 to 1961, he worked with the haematologist Joe Humble [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.284] who had long been fascinated by the possibilities of bone marrow transplantation as a remedy for genetic diseases and cancers. Inspired by him, it was at this time that Hobbs donated 500ml of his own bone marrow for research. In 1963 he passed his MD with a thesis on the diagnosis of thyroid disease using iodine, supervised by Sir Richard Bayliss [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web] and, the same year, became consultant haematologist at Hammersmith Hospital. Here he began to develop his interests in protein chemistry, particularly serum immunoglobulins in conditions such as malignant myeloma, a field as yet undeveloped.

In 1970 he was appointed professor of chemical pathology at Westminster Medical School. The first successful bone marrow stem cell transplantation had been carried out in the US two years earlier, and, in 1971, Hobbs, Joe Humble and David James carried out the UK’s first. It was performed on a 7 month old baby with severe immune deficiency using a sibling graft. The following year they carried out a father to child transplant and, in 1973, the first transplant using an unrelated donor. After this success, Hobbs collaborated with David James, a tissue typing specialist, to establish a register of potential donors. At the time a young patient of his, suffering from Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome, needed a transplant and no donor could be found. Sadly he died in 1979, aged nine, and the Anthony Nolan bone marrow registry was named after him.

Experimental evidence in 1980 showed that immune cells travelling through the bloodstream could combat a wide range of genetic disorders and Hobbs and his colleague, Ken Hugh-Jones [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web], began to report many remarkable improvements in children with haematological and enzyme deficient disorders. The process was extremely expensive and he collaborated with the Save the Children charity, Emma Nicholson MP and Iris Burton, the editor of Woman’s Own, to set up a fund to finance isolation cubicles (‘bubbles’) for the children undergoing transplants. It was called the Cogent (correction of genetic disorders by transplantation) Trust. By 1992, when the Westminster Children’s Hospital was absorbed into the Chelsea and Westminster, Hobbs and his team had performed 285 bone marrow transplants, their young patients often coming from far afield. He was devastated when it was announced that the transplant unit would be closed but he helped to oversee the use of Cogent’s funds to support similar work at the Bristol Royal Children’s Hospital and the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital.

For two years afterwards, he worked as professor of immunology at the Chelsea and Westminster, retiring in 1994. He continued to raise funds for the Cogent Trust and to disseminate knowledge about the benefits of transplantation. Throughout his career he won many national and international prizes and published some 630 scientific papers. An enthusiastic and accomplished teacher, he lectured in more than half of the medical schools in Europe, 25 in the US and 30 in the Commonwealth. He acted as an advisor to health ministers in Russia, Poland, Uruguay, Peru, Hong Kong and China. A moral, compassionate man who was a source of great encouragement to his juniors, his former trainees had accrued numerous postgraduate degrees and 48 professorships by the time of his death.

In his youth he played rugby and hockey. A keen philatelist, he also enjoyed gardening (particularly roses), woodworking and attending the theatre and opera. He kept up with his subject and his ex-colleagues and published his last paper ‘Further aspects of human immunoglobulin A deficiency’ (Ann clin biochem, 2007, 44, 496-7) the year before he died.

He married Patricia Lilian née Arnott in 1954, whose father James was an inspector of taxes. They had three daughters. When he died, following a year-long struggle with lung cancer, Patricia survived him, together with their children, Wendy, Lucy and Trudy, grandsons, Harry, Laurence, Gerry, Bobby and Dougie, and his brothers, William and Denis.

RCP editor

[BMJ www.bmj.com/content/337/bmj.1434 The Guardian www.theguardian.com/science/2008/sep/05/medicalresearch.health; Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=John_Raymond_Hobbs – all the above accessed on 7 January 2015]

(Volume XII, page web)

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