John Raymond Hobbs

BMJ 2008; 337 doi: (Published 26 August 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a1434
  1. Caroline Richmond

    Pathologist who unravelled immunoglobulin and myeloma chemistry, and pioneered bone marrow transplantation

    John Raymond Hobbs, known as Jack, pioneered bone marrow transplantation in Britain at the Westminster Children’s Hospital and produced results as good as the world’s best. He was also a leader in clinical immunology and protein chemistry. He set up supra-regional protein reference laboratories, developed the first non-invasive cystic fibrosis test (it used meconium), and established reference levels of immunoglobulins. He also recorded the natural history of malignant myeloma.

    Hobbs was born in Aldershot, the third son of a soldier. His family eventually settled in his father’s home town of Plymouth, but he was evacuated to Penzance during the Blitz. He left Plymouth College at 16 with O levels and worked as a pathology laboratory assistant at Plymouth Hospital for two years. He did his national service in the medical corps, serving in Egypt and the UK. He saved his sergeant’s pay and put himself through Plymouth and Devonport Technical College, gaining his inter BSc—the university entrance qualification—in nine months and earning a state scholarship. He entered Middlesex Hospital Medical School in 1950, took a BSc in 1953, and qualified in 1956, winning the lion’s share of prizes. He did his house jobs at the Middlesex, Central Middlesex, Brompton, and Royal Free Hospitals.

    As registrar at the Westminster Children’s Hospital during 1959-61, he worked with the haematologist Professor Joe Humble, from whom he gained an understanding of the potential of bone marrow transplantation to one day cure genetic diseases and cancers. During this time he donated 500 ml of his own bone marrow for research. He earned an MD in 1963 for a thesis on labelled iodine in the diagnosis of thyroid disease, supervised by Sir Richard Bayliss.

    In 1963 he was appointed consultant haematologist at Hammersmith Hospital, and here he developed his interests in protein chemistry, particularly serum immunoglobulins in conditions such as malignant myeloma, which was still poorly understood. In 1970 he was made professor of chemical pathology at Westminster Medical School. Two years earlier the first successful bone marrow stem cell transplant operation had been performed in Minnesota by Robert Good in a child with severe immunodeficiency. In 1971 Hobbs, Joe Humble, and the tissue-typing expert David James performed the UK’s first bone marrow transplantation in a 7 month baby with severe immune deficiency, using a sibling donor.

    A year later they performed father to child transplantation, and in 1973 they did the first transplant using an unrelated matched volunteer donor on a patient with granulomatous disease. At the time there was a worldwide appeal for a bone marrow donor for Anthony Nolan, a young patient of his with Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome. No donor was ever found, and Anthony died aged about 9. This led to the Anthony Nolan bone marrow registry for unrelated donors, with which Hobbs was closely associated.

    He collaborated with the Save the Children Fund, Emma Nicholson MP, and Iris Burton, editor of Woman’s Own, to raise money to build positive airflow cubicles (“bubbles” for children undergoing transplantation) at the Westminster Children’s Hospital and to train consultants. This was done by the charity he founded and ran, the Cogent (correction of genetic diseases by transplantation) Trust.

    Hobbs’s team had performed 285 transplant operations by 1992, when the Westminster Children’s Hospital’s work was transferred to the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital and, despite Hobbs’s best efforts, the transplant unit was closed. He and colleagues were intensely disappointed, believing that many of the children on their waiting list had nowhere else to go that offered the same amount of expertise in hard to treat patients.

    He continued his immunology work at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital until his retirement in 1994 with the title of professor of immunology. Cogent’s funds were used to create a bone marrow transplant unit at Bristol Children’s Hospital, which he supported vigorously.

    Hobbs won many national and international prizes and fellowships. He wrote over 250 papers. He lectured in more than half the medical schools of Europe and in 25 in the United States and 30 in the Commonwealth. He advised governments in Russia, Poland, Uruguay, Peru, Hong Kong, and China. His former trainees have accrued 134 higher degrees and 48 professorships.

    He set up the supra-regional protein reference laboratories that provide a specialist service to all pathology departments. He campaigned successfully for the Royal College of Pathologists to grant fellowship to non-medical pathologists, and this has contributed enormously to the college’s academic strength.

    Hobbs was, said his colleague Pam Alexander, a moral, compassionate person who delighted in scientific achievement, gave consistent support to those who trained in his department, and believed absolutely in the sanctity of every life. He was intellectually rigorous and had an encyclopaedic knowledge of his subject. Energetic, forthright, and holding strong views, he was also ebullient and fun to be with.

    In his retirement he enjoyed going to the theatre and opera, his stamp collection, his grandchildren, and keeping up with advances in his subject. He remained in touch with his colleagues and published his last paper in 2007, around the time his lung cancer was diagnosed.

    He is survived by Patricia, his wife of 54 years, and daughters, Wendy, Lucy, and Trudy.


    Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a1434


    • John Raymond Hobbs, emeritus professor of immunology Charing Cross and Westminster Medical School, London (b 17 April 1929; q Middlesex Hospital 1956; BSc (Hons), DObstRCOG, MD, FRCP, FRCPath, FRCPCH), d 13 July 2008.

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