Skip to content

Mike Holmes

Mike Holmes joined the Department in 1976. Upon arrival, he reminded one of King Henry VIII -- in physical stature, majestic manner, intellectual and artistic abilities and temperament. He and his statuesque wife Ann (who was also a microbiologist) infused the place with English charm and their dinner parties and barbeques were legendary. 

They bought a baronial villa built from Oamaru stone with huge bay windows overlooking Northeast Valley below. It was in a slight a state of disrepair which only added a certain charm - it had the mandatory open fireplaces and a large dining and living room for entertaining guests. On the walls were some of Mike's artwork and in the hallways, his fishing gear. The Holmes' would invite everyone in the Department to their banquets/barbeques where the booze flowed freely - Mike was famous for his "leg opener" punch.  During the course of the evening, Mike would bring out his guitar and entertain us with well-known folk songs and Irish ballads. We managed to sing along in one way or another. On many occasions I was among the last to leave, whereupon he would produce his finest single malt whiskey. The living room couch was my bed on more than one occasion.

Profile in 1979 - Epidemiology of human Viruses

Prior to his appointment, Dr Holmes spent nine years in epidemiological research on criteria for the transmission and severity of acute human respiratory virus and mycoplasma infections. The work was carried out at the WHO-MRC Common Cold Unit, Salisbury (UK), the NIMR laboratories Holly Hill, Hampstead, the Clinical Research Centre, Harrow, NASA-Ames Research Center, California and included three years in Antarctica. His main project comprised a series of comparative human volunteer studies in England and in polar isolation, investigating the progressively increased vulnerability to acute respiratory disease of men in isolated communities. The local and systemic immune responses of both groups were compared and the kinetics of transmission and persistence of a range of viruses and mycoplasmas in the isolated communities were examined. During the two years before he came to New Zealand, Dr Holmes took over the NASA Lunar Biology laboratory at Moffett Field where he worked on the infectivity of airborne rhinovirus in the human environmental milieu and the microclimates of the human respiratory tract.

The Antarctic studies are being extended here at Otago University, where related collaborative work with the University of Oklahoma and the US Office of Polar Programs has already been in progress for four years. It is hoped that these studies can be further developed to include "antigenically naive" isolated Pacific communities.

In the last two years, human volunteer and laboratory studies of the local immune responses of the nasopharynx have been funded by the MRC. These are aimed at clarifying the nature, extent and roles of the components involved, the persistence of local immunological memory and the degree of autonomy from the systemic immune response. To date, studies have concentrated on the development of the technology for assay work in humans correlated with animal model studies being carried out under the direction of Dr Griffin. So far, this laboratory has been successful in developing the first atraumatic sampling system for the extraction of mucosal lymphoid cells from humans and is presently delineating the extent of the total nasopharyngeal lymphoid resources. Armed with these procedures, the project work has now reached a stage where systematic human studies on local mucosal immunity can begin.

Profile - Departmental Newsletter - 1994

"I was born on December 6, 1941 (the night of Pearl Harbour and the Russian counter-attack at Stalingrad), at Tettenhall, a village near the edge of the 70-mile-diameter industrial complex known as the 'Black Country' in central England, I won a scholarship for the sons of war-widows to a very minor public school, catering to children of scrap-iron merchants and war profiteers and left at 16 to take a job as a brick-layer's mate building a power station in Barcelona (this being as far away from Teltenhall as I could gel at the time). After misunderstandings with the Spanish Authorities I retreated tactfully to a village high in the Catalonian Pyranees where the prime occupation was transporting French cigarettes and contraceptives across the Spanish border. Some months later I was traced from England and learned that my practice A-levels had come up lucky. After a year as a hospital porter, I was fired for overturning a trolley by the lift shaft on the top floor (it carried the day's milk supply for the hospital). I then spent 6 happy years getting my license-to-kill at Liverpool Medical School - at this time we could hire the Beatles for £50 a gig.After my MB I, took a year off to do my first bit of research, looking for evidence of certain characteristic b-haptoglobins in the blood of the inhabitants of remote fishing communities in the outer Canary Islands, Here I developed my abiding hatred of camels. After my registration year in 1966, during which I was Prof Pat Molloy's houseman, I joined the British Antarctic Survey. I spent three of the next seven years at the dog-driving base of Stonington Island on the Antarctic Peninsula and the rest between the Common Cold Unit at Salisbury, Flying-Doctor in the Falkland Islands and the Clinical Research Centre at Harrow. This was all under the direction of David Tyrrell, FRS and Bar, who inherited the mantle of Sir Christopher Andrewes, daddy of English virology. In 1972 I married, we had a son and then in 1974 we submitted our MD and PhD theses a day before leaving for California. There, for two years, I ran the duplicate Moon-Lab facility for NASA, working on Viking until they abandoned the manned Mars shot, when I applied for the job here. My interview with Prof John Miles took place at midnight on the 12th floor of the Oklahoma City Hilton and began stylishly when he suggested a night-cap, opened a bottle of single malt and chucked the cork out of the window.

Following an extended holiday with old mates homesteading in Northern Alberta on the edge of the Arctic Circle, we came to Otago in 1976 and here we have raised our family in a big, shabby old villa up the NE valley. My research interests and training are in clinical immunovirology, particularly at a mucosal level and for the past 8 years I have become focused on Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or Tapanui 'Flu, trying to find out if it has an infectious aetiology."

Profile - Departmental website - 1995

Mike Holmes' current research is aimed at attempting to isolate the causative agent of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and the development of a diagnostic test for its detection. These studies are being undertaken in collaboration with the HRC Virus Research Unit. Investigations are under way to develop a cell culture system for the isolation of a retrovirus. Multi factorial analysis of data bases compiled from white blood cell tests has been utilised in an attempt to develop a diagnostic test. Immmunovirological studies aimed at identifying target cells are under way. Purification, characterisation and studies of the in vitro effects of a new reverse-transcriptase inhibitor are in progress. The reverse transcriptase inhibitor may be a representative of a new class of these compounds and the mode of inhibition suggests that it could act synergistically with the di-deoxynucleoside analogues currently employed in the treatment of AIDS. Since resistant strains of HIV develop rapidly, the therapeutic potential of the compound could be high if it can be used in rotation/combination regimes.

Some of Mike's handiwork


Mike resigned in 2002 after an extended period of ill health - involving complications with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). I don't think the backbiting and the nit-picking nature of academic life suited MIke's temperament. He would have been much happier as a country doctor in some small town in Central Otago where he could spend more time fishing, hunting, driving his 4X4 LandRover off road and being the centre of the community. This was suggested to him by some of his colleagues, but he found the challenge of being an academic more compelling. He passed away, at Dunedin Hospital, on July 4, 2016; aged 74. He is survived by his sons Kevin and Robin and his daughter, Elin and his former wife, Ann.