Robin Holliday (1932-2014)

14 April 2014

Robin Holliday died on 9 April 2014. He worked at NIMR for 23 years (1965-1988) and was head of the Division of Genetics from 1970.

Robin was born on 6 November 1932 in Jaffa. After schooling in Gibraltar and Hitchin he went up to Cambridge and gained a double first in Natural Sciences. He stayed at Cambridge for PhD studies on the genetics of Ustilago maydis. From 1958-65 he held a research position at the John Innes Institute in Bayfordbury, Hertfordshire, and also spent one year (1962-3) on a Fulbright Scholarship in the Department of Genetics at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Robin joined the staff of NIMR in 1965, researching microbial genetics and subsequently the mechanism of biological ageing. The then Director, Peter Medawar, was keen to establish a “little nucleus of bacterial geneticists” to work alongside the Institute’s bacterial chemists at that time. One referee who Medawar consulted said “There can be no doubt of [his] ingenuity and enterprise … He must be making more progress with the study of replication and recombination than virtually anyone else”. Three years later Medawar wrote that Robin Holliday had “added to his reputation by his more recent work on DNA repair mechanisms and by his exciting experiments in the field of senescence”.

He was appointed head of a new Division of Genetics in 1970 and by 1974 was described as “one of the more outstanding members of the Institute”.

He made discoveries that came to have central importance to the field of epigenetics. In 1975 he suggested that DNA methylation could be an important mechanism for the control of gene expression in higher organisms, and this has now become documented as a basic epigenetic mechanism in normal and cancer cells. He was elected FRS in 1976 and later received many other honours.

In 1988 Robin left NIMR and took up a senior research position with CSIRO in Sydney, Australia. He retired from research in 1997.

He was awarded the Royal Society’s Royal Medal in 2011 for his influential discoveries of the ‘Holliday junction’ molecular structure (formed whenever the breakage and rejoining of DNA occurs in chromosomes, such as in cell division) and the function of DNA methylation (a process vital for normal development in humans, in which DNA is chemically modified).

He was also a prolific author, from The Science of Human Progress in 1981 to Aging: the Paradox of Life, in 2007.

I met Robin when I joined NIMR for the first time in 1984, and I was always terribly impressed, and even in awe of, him and his work. I didn’t get to know him very well then, but I was delighted when he came back to Mill Hill in September 2012 to celebrate his 80th birthday. We had a great time and met lots of old friends, and it was wonderful to get to know him anew. He will be sadly missed, and we send our best wishes and condolences to his wife Lily.

Jim Smith, Director of NIMR

Robin Holliday was a very important influence on my life. Robin was a unique person: not only an outstanding scientist, but really a thinker and philosopher with wide interests in political, social and environmental problems. He started his research as a botanist, continued as a geneticist and cell biologist, molecular biologist and gerontologist. He made important contributions in all these fields.

Zhores Medvedev (NIMR 1972-91)

I had the great good fortune to encounter Robin very early in my career. He was an inspired and inspiring scientist, always generous to his younger colleagues. He brought zest and fun to his science, underpinned by an uncompromising idealism.

Tom Kirkwood (NIMR 1981-93)

Robin Holliday

Robin Holliday

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