Obituaries: Robin Holliday

Dr Robin Holliday FAA FRS (6 November 1932 – 9 April 2014) was born in the British Mandate of Palestine in Jaffa. His family returned to the United Kingdom three years later, where he eventually earned two degrees at Cambridge University: a BA with First Class Honours in Natural Sciences in 1955, followed by a PhD studying the parasitic smut fungus Ustilago maydis.

Holliday held a research post at the John Innes Institute in Bayfordbury, Herfordshire from 1958–1965, with a brief interlude at the Department of Genetics at the University of Washington in Seattle on a Fulbright Scholarship. His early work established experimental genetic systems for Ustilago and he isolated the first DNA repair-deficient mutants of a eukaryotic organism. During this period Holliday established an enduring legacy though a model for DNA recombination intermediate: the eponymous ‘Holliday junction’.

Holliday later worked for two decades at the National Institute of Medical Research on the outskirts of London, serving 18 years as Head of the Division of Genetics. Over time, his research interests shifted to epigenetics and ageing and he was one of the first to propose that epigenetic phenomena such as DNA methylation patterns influence gene expression and can be stably inherited. His work was rewarded with the Lord Cohen Medal for Gerentological Research in 1987.

In 1988, Holliday relocated to Sydney to join the CSIRO Division of Biomolecular Science, where he continued to pursue his interests in DNA methylation and cellular ageing until he retired in 1997. But retirement didn’t slow him; he published reviews and views on ageing until 2012.

Holliday was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1976, and received the Royal Medal of the Society in 2011. He was also honoured with membership of the European Molecular Biology Organization and as a Foreign Fellow of the Indian National Science Academy. In 2005, he was elected to the Australian Academy of Science for his fundamental contributions to molecular genetics, epigenetics and cell biology.

In addition to authoring numerous authoritative books, Holliday was a skilled sculptor whose work was exhibited in art galleries in Australia and the UK. His art works feature abstract organic shapes and included a number of kinetic sculptures. His wife, Dr Lily Huschtscha, has commented that she believed her husband’s ability to envision three-dimensional objects was a considerable asset in conceptualising the Holliday structure.

Holliday is survived by his wife, his children David, Caroline, Rebecca, Emma and Mira, his grandchildren and a great-grandchild.

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