Lives of the fellows

Eric John Holborow

b.20 March 1918 d.3 February 2009
MA MB BChir Cantab(1942) MRCS LRCP(1942) MD(1953) MRCP(1972) FCPath(1978) FRCP(1978)

Eric John Holborow, known as ‘John’ or ‘EJ’, was a pioneer in the science of autoimmunity and head of the bone and joint research unit, London Hospital Medical School. His father, Albert Edward Ratcliffe Holborow was a captain in the RAMC. Educated at Epsom College, he studied medicine at Clare College, Cambridge and St Batholomew’s Hospital. On qualification in 1942, he immediately joined the RAMC as a microbiologist and served in Egypt under the haematologist, Sir John Dacie [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web]. When he returned in 1947, he joined Dacie’s department at the Postgraduate Medical School of London.

He joined the staff of the Canadian Red Cross Hospital in Taplow in 1953 and worked with Eric Bywaters [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XI, p.86] in the rheumatology unit. While he was there he was particularly involved in perfecting the new technique of using immunoflourescence to define autoantibodies in many diseases, providing much of the basis for modern diagnostics. With his colleagues, he was the first to describe smooth muscle reactive autoantibodies and this led the way to important immunological discoveries in the fields of liver disease, viral infections and neoplasia. While there he made a point of developing activities for the children hospitalised through arthritis.

A founder member of the British Society for Immunology in 1956, he became a member of the committee three years later and it’s second secretary. Together with Leonard Glynn [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web] he published Autoimmunity and disease (Oxford, Blackwell, 1965) which was regarded as a landmark text in the field and has been described as ‘a model of scientific writing’. He also wrote An ABC of modern immunology (London, Lancet Ltd, 1968).

He remained in Taplow until 1976 when the unit, of which he was now director, closed and he became head of the new bone and joint research unit at the London Hospital Medical College set up by the Arthritis Research Campaign. During his time there he developed a new understanding of rheumatoid factors and immune complexes in arthritis and also vastly improved the lives of children with coeliac disease by the ELISA (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay) test which reduced the need for them to have intestinal biopsies. He continued to edit The journal of immunological methods and, jointly with W R Reeves, produced two editions of Immunology in medicine (London, Academic Press, 1977, 1983). A visiting professor at the Royal Free Medical School, he was also Bradshaw Lecturer at the RCP.

After retirement in 1983 he began work on a history of the village (and medieval church) near Henley-on-Thames where he lived and published it in 1999 with the title Fingest: stony ground (London, Minerva). He and his wife were renowned for their hospitality and guests were entertained by lively conversations enriched by his wide knowledge of literature outside the field of medicine.

In 1943 he married Cicely Mary née Foister, the daughter of Arthur Taylor Foister who was a hosiery manufacturer. They had two sons, Jonathan and Paul, and a daughter, Marnie. Cicely survived him, along with his children, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

RCP editor

[BMJ, 2009 339 5480;Rheumatology, 2009 48 1623; Epsom College Archives – accessed 13 November 2014]


(Volume XII, page web)

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