John O’Hara Tobin

BMJ 2008; 336 doi: (Published 21 February 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;336:453
  1. William Tobin

What to write about my virologist father for his trade journal when I myself am not in the trade and cannot write knowledgeably about his work? After all, any reader who wants to know what he did scientifically can type ‘tobin jo’ and ‘tobin jo’h’ into PubMed to find a total of 83 hits. Or consult Munk’s Roll for a professional evaluation of his career.

Let me start with what I know from family lore and archives. John’s father was a padre with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force who had met a Queen Alexandra’s nurse from Lancashire while ministering in Malta. John was born in England in the New Zealand military-hospital town of Walton-on-Thames. “7 lbs 1 oz, fingernails beautifully formed,” wrote the padre, who a few months later took his young family back to New Zealand, but died before two years were out. His widow returned to Britain to raise her son in the Wirral. By dint of pensions, scholarships, and an unexpected legacy she sent him to Liverpool College, and then in 1937, to Keble College, Oxford, where he read medicine. The Keble entrance examination, my father recorded, “must have been a joke as it was in advanced maths of which I knew little so presumably neither did the examiner ... There was no competition to get into the medical school as medicine was not the popular subject it seems to be today.” Among his non-medical diversions were beer (6d a pint in college for bitter, the same price as a hot bath) and sports, especially hockey.

And then came the second world war. John stayed on at Oxford, qualifying BM, BCh in 1942. After a houseman year at the Royal United …

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