Obituary: Prof Sir Frederick Holliday CBE, marine biologist and naturalist

Born: 22 September, 1935, in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire. Died: 5 September, 2016, in Aberdeen, aged 80

Prof Sir Fred Holliday, marine biologist, naturalist and one of the founding fathers of Stirling University. Picture: Contributed
Prof Sir Fred Holliday, marine biologist, naturalist and one of the founding fathers of Stirling University. Picture: Contributed

If you were to draw a diagram to illustrate the breadth of the impact of Professor Sir Fred Holliday’s intelligence, drive and enthusiasm, you’d quickly run out of paper. The boy who learnt how to swim in a canal on the outskirts of Birmingham would go on to help set up Stirling University, play a significant role in regenerating run-down areas of north-east England, steer pioneering marine biology techniques and encourage generations of children to love science.

Fred Holliday was born in 1935 in the Midlands town of Bromsgrove, and the Second World War loomed large in his world. He saw houses being bombed, would collect bits of shrapnel and go to school realising that some of the other children were never coming back. His father, Alfred, was a technologist with a large glass manufacturing company that was developing bulletproof glass for Spitfires and warships – a reserved occupation that meant he was kept back from the war. His mother, Margaret, was a flamboyant cook. And in the true spirit of wartime making do, they kept rabbits to cook and would pick fruit from hedgerows.

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Young Fred exhibited the curious mind of a scientist from an early age. For a while he truly tested his mother’s patience by keeping a decomposing snake under his bed, and was known to prick the fingers of his sister, Myrtle, so he could examine her blood under a microscope. One of his teachers, David Hobson, spotted his talent and steered him in the direction of biology.

Fred had a deep love for poetry and literature, and very nearly opted to study English, but biology won over. And although he was offered a place at Cambridge, he chose to go to Sheffield University because he wanted to study under the biochemist and Nobel prize-winner Sir Hans Krebbs. He loved his time there and graduated with a first-class honours degree.

His next move was to Aberdeen University, where he did his National Service on defence vessels while working at the Marine Research Laboratory, researching the depletion of North Sea herring stock. He was soon offered the role of senior scientific officer in the civil service in the Granite City, and there he met Philippa, who was studying chemistry. They wed in her local church in Glen Devon when she was 21 and he 22, and set up home in a small flat in Aberdeen.

He then became zoology lecturer at Aberdeen University, and they moved to a house on the outskirts of the city, before having two children, Helen and Richard.

In 1963 the Robbins Report on Higher Education recommended the expansion of universities across the UK, and plans were put in place for the creation of a new university in Stirling. Sir Fred – then just Fred – was one of its founding academics, charged with helping to develop the institution, facilities and buildings for the whole campus. Meanwhile, as Professor of Biology he built up an impressive team of scientists, many of whom he had worked with in Aberdeen. Together they developed pioneering techniques involving fitting electronic tracking devices on loch trout in order to record detailed information about their habits.

He rose to prominence early as the UK’s youngest university principal when he took over at Stirling University during student protests in the 1970s.

He then went back to Aberdeen to be Professor of Zoology, once again nurturing a strong team of marine scientists. Building on what he had learnt tracking fish, he began delving deeper into the ocean, using tags to track larger creatures such as basking sharks. At one point he got a late-night phone call from Nasa, a partner on this project, informing him that a shark was swimming across Scotland. The shark had actually been caught in a net that was being driven on land.

In 1980 he was invited to become Vice Chancellor and Warden of Durham University, where he was unable to pass up on an opportunity to dance with its rather divine Chancellor, Dame Margot Fonteyn.

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While the prime minister at the time, Margaret Thatcher, was being shown around a deprived area of Middlesborough she asked him what he would do to improve the area. He replied that he would build a university; she gave the project the nod, and soon Durham University was building a new campus, which went on to play a large part in regenerating the Teesside area. One of his lasting legacies is the Holliday Building on the campus.

After leaving Durham he was knighted for services to education and became chairman of Northumbrian Water during a period of great flux in the sector. Under his stewardship the group bought Essex and Sussex Water, and he effectively ran the entire water industry for north-east England.

Not one to let his skills lie idle, in semi-retirement Sir Fred held a great number of executive and non-executive positions, including roles with Shell UK, Water Aid and the Scottish Civic Trust. He also served terms as president of the British Trust for Ornithology and the Freshwater Biological Association.

He resigned the chairmanship of the UK’s Joint Nature Conservation Committee in 1991 in protest over the government’s perceived failure to consult the committee before introducing the Natural Heritage (Scotland) Act, which allowed private landowners an independent review to dispute designations as areas of special scientific interest. He was also chairman of a nearby prep school, Lathallan in Johnshaven, and delighted the students with his ad hoc science classes.

In retirement, his great loves were his garden in rural Aberdeenshire, ornithology and his grandchildren, in whom he nurtured a great and lasting interest in science. Indeed, several of his descendants are working in that field now. He loved spending time walking the clifftops and watching puffins with Philippa, and they would often take a Campervan to the west coast of Scotland to spend time in the wild.

Sir Fred scaled back his activities after contracting Non-Hodgkin lymphoma at the age of 75. He died on 5 September, a few weeks ahead of what would have been his 81st birthday. He is survived by his wife Philippa, daughter Helen, son Richard, sister Myrtle and several grandchildren.