Lives of the fellows

Herbert Edward Holling

b.8 October 1908 d.27 February 2000
MSc Sheffield(1931) MB ChB(1932) VRD(1942) MD(1960) FRCP(1962)

Eddie Holling was a physician at the University of Pennsylvania, and a researcher into the peripheral vascular system. He was born in Barnsley, Yorkshire, the son of Herbert Holling, a frugal schoolmaster, and Margaret Holling née Taylor, the daughter of a blacksmith. His happy childhood left him with a love of the arts and of the countryside, and an endearing hint of Yorkshire vowels. He was a serial prize-winner at Barnsley Grammar School, and won an entrance scholarship to Sheffield University Medical School, where the prizes continued.

On qualifying, he gained the most coveted house physician post in the north, to Robert Platt [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.470]. Always ‘Bobbie’, Platt became chair of medicine at Manchester, president of the Royal College of Physicians and a peer. In the 1930s, he was the most respected and well-loved of doctors, who left an indelible imprint on his juniors. His warm civility to his patients, his meticulous clinical technique, and his illuminating curiosity about every aspect of science and the natural world were clearly imprinted on Eddie. Eddie was always grateful to Platt for this example and above all for encouraging him to opt for research at a time when this was a rare and risky career decision.

Eddie then began his life’s work on the physiology of the peripheral circulation, first at Sheffield and then for two years working on the origin of digital clubbing at Harvard in the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital. He fell in love with the United States, with its beauty and variety, the prevailing generosity of his hosts and, above all, with the energy and informality of his colleagues who actively enthused about a good idea and usually found the money to fund it. Countless thousands of us before and since have been lucky to share this intoxication.

He left Harvard to return to the UK, to work at Guy’s Hospital Medical School in one of the few Medical Research Council (MRC) units in the country. He joined Ronald Thomas Grant [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IX, p.204] in the two-man peripheral vascular disease unit. Grant was from Sir Thomas Lewis’ stable at University College Hospital and a stern Scot in the mould of Carlyle and Knox. He was the only member of the medical school staff permitted any access to the hospital, with a tiny outpatients and the occasional inpatient bed. Grant was no diplomat with the clinicians, but Eddie became one perforce. It was he who was able to mollify the suspicious consultants reeling from his chief's adverse comments on their doctoring, their titles and their private practices. If there were few laughs in the unit, Eddie made many friends in the schools and hospital, and became an established and popular fixture in the place.

In 1939 he volunteered and became a surgeon commander in a research team, working between the Royal Navy and the Army. He travelled far to deserts and jungles, trying to make tanks habitable in extreme heat. He did the same for extreme cold in submarines. Finally, he worked on a cure for seasickness for the troops on D-Day. Hyoscine hydrobromide was the answer, but nothing could work during the summer gales of 1944.

He returned to Guy’s to join in the explosion of research activity bottled up by the war. He worked with Russell Brock [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.62] and Charles Baker [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.20], and set up the cardiac catheter service. He often crossed the park from the radiology department with an intra-arterial catheter tip snug in his own right atrium. He and Grant were joined by a handsome, dashing Brummie, John Butterfield [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XI, p.83]. Here was another fledgling diplomat, who learnt much about how to get on at Guy’s from Eddie. Together they raised the profile of the unit in the hospital to such an extent that John was seen as acceptable as the first professor of experimental medicine. They became the best of friends.

Eddie found that his English qualifications did not wash in the States, where the lack of ‘MD’ after his name made many doubt that he was really a doctor at all. He consulted Sir John McMichael [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IX, p.341] at the Postgraduate Medical School of London. They examined Eddie’s published work together, and shortly afterwards Eddie was quietly awarded the MD of London University. Hard-pressed registrars of today are not advised to try this approach themselves.

Eddie started at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP) in the days when the gentlemanly Francis C Wood was chairman of medicine. For 10 happy years, with Hugh Montgomery at the helm and Brooke Roberts at the operating table, Eddie enjoyed busy clinical work, research and teaching. He wrote his book Peripheral vascular disease: diagnosis and management (Philadelphia, Lippincott, Oxford, distributed by Blackwell Scientific, [1972]), which was well-reviewed, although he ruefully acknowledged the justice of one comment: ‘Dr Holling tends to see treatment as a spectator sport’.

In 1965 James B Wyngaarden from Duke succeeded Wood as chairman. Genetics and biochemistry ruled at HUP for a short while until he left, to be followed by Arnold Relman, who came down from Boston to displace biochemistry with immunology. His army of young investigators (‘I suppose they do have medical degrees?’ said Eddie) required most of the available premises and edged out many a long-established mere clinician. Funds for vascular disease became diverted to immunological research and Eddie, not reluctantly, became the director of medical outpatient clinics, where he enjoyed doctoring, teaching and, of course, the complete absence of young investigators from Boston. This Republican used his great charm on representatives of drug companies to leave generous stocks of their products to be given to the many poor patients who would otherwise have no medication. His retirement party was enormous and prolonged, for he was widely beloved throughout the hospital and the medical school, where he had many friends and admirers.

Eddie enjoyed his time at HUP, but it was in his 18th century cottage at Wawa in the country outside Philadelphia that Eddie came completely into flower. The old ivy-covered stone cottage, one room on each floor, suited his furniture. The meadow and woods outside gave him the birds and wild flowers he relished. There was enough room for a garden and there was the addition of a hammock by the stream for that essential post-prandial reading and napping.

He was fortunate in his landlords up the hill. Mark and Gill Willcox and their two sons were close friends, living within view of the ‘gin flag’ (a small white ensign), which was raised on the Wawa flag pole at 6pm to signal when the martinis were ready. The Willcoxes were ‘Old Philadelphia’, thanks to whom Eddie met a large number of life-loving, often rich, neighbours, who took to this charming, sociable and entertaining Englishman. The lad from Barnsley became the regular guest of the descendants of signatories of the Declaration of Independence or the founders of railroads and assorted robber barons. Eddie became a US citizen in due course. He knew himself to be indelibly English, but was deeply grateful to his adopted country to which he owed so much.

He had no enemies except the Wawa foxes who terrorised his cherished bantam hens, which he named after his neighbours. His affection for them did not stop their progress to the casserole. ‘We are eating Miss Dorothy,’ he once announced to guests even as he handed a strong drink to dinner’s namesake Miss Dorothy Willcox. Then the treat was to go to an agricultural fair to look for Miss Dorothy's replacement.

His regular stream of lunch and dinner guests allowed Eddie to explore every chapter of the Ritz cocktail book and most of the dishes in the Elizabeth David volumes sent by his sisters from England. Many of his guests, young and old, will fondly remember those visits to Wawa, with a special mix of music (no Wagner), chat, food (eventually), books, cicadas in the evening, log fires and, above all, laughter and kindness.

In 1945, when Eddie kindly gave up his flat in London to Michael Price [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web] and his wife, Ann, they introduced him to Mark, a young ballet dancer colleague of Ann’s. It was love at first sight and, until Eddie left for Philadelphia, they were inseparable. They were reunited during Eddie’s annual trips back to England and, after his retirement, Eddie asked Mark to live with him in Wawa. By then Mark, never a country dweller, was too wedded to his life in London. He could not bring himself to undertake such a drastic change, although they stayed in close affectionate touch thereafter.

Some years after his retirement, Eddie felt insecure driving on busy roads and also the place got too much for him. He moved to a high class retirement home with his own cottage, a small garden patch and extremely comprehensive care facilities. It was far from his friends and, as he said, ‘full of old people’. He continued to make his annual visits to England to tour first his sisters, then his old friends. He celebrated his 80th birthday, resplendent in brilliant red bow tie and waistcoat. ‘I feel like a bantam cock,’ he said. He had come to resemble a cheery version of the late W Somerset Maugham as painted by Graham Sutherland.

He travelled less and began to sadden, until there burst the Indian summer of his life. He began to go to Quaker meeting and met Hal and Lynn Swisher, who lived in a large old house nearby. The Swishers became his second family. He went to them most days, helped Hal, a retired teacher of philosophy, with his DIY jobs in the community and at home. He gardened again, took walks and took them to Europe. After some years he had a paralytic stroke which left him dysphasic but far from aphonic. Hal and Lynn cared for him, taking him to restaurants, gardens and, above all, the amazing museums of south Pennsylvania.

He died quietly and, one can guess, happy, in his sleep. His funeral was in the Friend’s Meeting House where his Indian summer had started.

Christopher Mallinson

(Volume XII, page web)

<< Back to List