Professor Robin Coombs

Inventor of the Coombs test


Robert Royston Amos Coombs, immunologist: born London 9 January 1921; Stringer Fellow, King's College, Cambridge 1947-56; Fellow, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge 1962-2006; Reader in Immunology, Cambridge University 1963-66, Quick Professor in Immunology, 1966-88 (Emeritus); FRS 1965; married 1952 Anne Blomfield (one son, one daughter); died Cambridge 25 February 2006.

In 1945 Robin Coombs devised a test for detecting rhesus antibodies in pregnant women, and in the newborn babies of rhesus negative women. These babies used to die, and rhesus negative women often had a succession of pregnancies that ended in stillbirth or death in infancy. Coombs's test, which is now used throughout the world, enables recognition and treatment of the condition. Within a few years of the test's introduction, rhesus negative women could be assured that the outcome of their pregnancy was as good as that of rhesus positive women. The Coombs test is also routinely used to test blood for transfusion.

Coombs had previously devised a test for glanders, a serious disease of horses and donkeys, while a postgraduate student in the government veterinary research centre in Weybridge, and the work formed part of his PhD thesis. Shortly afterwards he went as a PhD student to Cambridge University's pathology department, where two senior colleagues, Robert Race and Arthur Mourant, were working on the recently discovered rhesus blood group system.

They faced the problem that rhesus antibodies are structurally incomplete and therefore do not make red blood cells clump together, as a complete antigen would. One day, while returning home from London on the train, Coombs realised that, although the red blood cells did not go into clumps, they would nevertheless become coated with immunoglobulin, which would remain on them when the incomplete antibodies were washed off them.

He realised that, if further antibodies were added, that recognised the globulins that were coating the red cells, these would then clump. They did, and the test proved spectacularly successful. Coombs and his two co-workers published their results in The Lancet in 1945, followed by a more detailed report in the British Journal of Experimental Pathology.

Coombs wrote, with his colleague Philip Gell, the definitive textbook, Clinical Aspects of Immunology (1963), which ran to five editions over 30 years. They devised a rational, science-based classification of hypersensitivity reactions (published in full in the third edition, 1975), which is named after them. This differentiated between the immediate allergic reactions that release histamine; antibody-dependent reactions, which are an immune response to another protein in the body; immune-complex reactions, which underpin rheumatoid arthritis and many other diseases; and cell-mediated (rather than antibody-mediated) reactions, which include early-onset diabetes and transplant rejection.

Robin Coombs was born in London and brought up in Cape Town. He trained as a vet at the Royal ("Dick") Veterinary College in Glasgow, qualifying in 1945. He spent a few months at the Weybridge laboratory, working on glanders, which was regarded as a potential biological warfare agent and kills horses and donkeys in the Third World, before going to Cambridge, where he spent the rest of his life, retiring as Emeritus Professor of Immunology.

He had a remarkable capacity to visualise how antibodies and antibodies react, and saw them in what can only be described as cartoon form. This enabled him to create numerous variants in the antiglobulin reaction, so that it could detect antigens as well antibodies. He developed methods of coating red cells with specific antibodies as a way of testing for viruses and other infectious agents - so providing a fast, cheap and sensitive way of testing for infections at the patient's bedside.

Coombs was a central figure in an international renaissance of immunology. It was poorly understood when he entered the field, and by the end of the last century was no longer a mystery. In the mid-1950s he and others set up the British Society of Immunology. He attracted the best PhD students and many of the world's leading immunologists trained under him, or under immunologists that he trained. His first PhD student, Anne Blomfeld, became his wife and collaborator.

Boffin-like, brilliant and benign, Coombs was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1965 and received many honours and awards, including honorary fellowship of the Royal College of Physicians, a rare honour for a non-medical person. He published over 200 hundred scientific papers. With his wife and D.G. Ingram, he was the author of The Serology of Conglutination, and Its Relation to Disease (1961).

When Coombs retired, he developed his own theory of cot death, that it was caused by an acute allergic response to inhaling regurgitated cow's milk when infants are laid to sleep face down, which he published as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome: could a healthy infant succumb to inhalation-anaphylaxis during sleep leading to cot death? (with W.E. Parish and A.F. Walls, 2000). He tested his theory on guinea pigs, lightly anaesthetising them to simulate sleep.

Caroline Richmond

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Babysitter Katie and Paul have terse words in the park
tvReview: The strength of the writing keeps viewers glued to their seats even when they are confronted with the hard-hitting scenes
Life and Style
Make-up artists prepare contestants for last year’s Miss World, held in Budapest
fashion
Life and Style
life
News
‘The Graduate’, starring Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft, was directed by Nichols in his purple period
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Argyll Scott International: FP&A Manager Supply Chain

Benefits: Argyll Scott International: Argyll Scott is recruiting for a Permane...

Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property NQ+

£30000 - £50000 per annum + EXCELLENT: Austen Lloyd: COMMERCIAL PROPERTY SOLI...

Argyll Scott International: Retail Commercial Finance Analyst

Benefits: Argyll Scott International: Due to further expansion, a leading inte...

Langley James : Senior Technician; Promotion & Training Opp; Borough; upto £32k

£27000 - £32000 per annum + training: Langley James : Senior Technician; Promo...

Day In a Page

US immigration: President Obama ready to press ahead with long-promised plan to overhaul 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?

Immigration: Obama's final frontier

The President is ready to press ahead with the long-promised plan to overhaul America's 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?
Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?

Scoot commute

Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?
Paul Robeson: The story of how an American icon was driven to death to be told in film

The Paul Robeson story

How an American icon was driven to death to be told in film
10 best satellite navigation systems

Never get lost again: 10 best satellite navigation systems

Keep your vehicle going in the right direction with a clever device
Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

'How do you carry on? You have to...'

The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

Sir John Major hits out at theatres

Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

Kicking Barbie's butt

How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines
Will Smith's children have made waves with a gloriously over-the-top interview, but will their music match their musings?

What are Jaden and Willow on about?

Will Smith's children have made waves with a gloriously over-the-top interview, but will their music match their musings?
Fridge gate: How George Osborne keeping his fridge padlocked shows a frosty side to shared spaces

Cold war

How George Osborne keeping his fridge padlocked shows a frosty side to shared spaces
Stocking fillers: 10 best loo books

Stocking fillers: 10 best loo books

From dogs in cars to online etiquette, while away a few minutes in peace with one of these humorous, original and occasionally educational tomes
Malky Mackay appointed Wigan manager: Three texts keep Scot’s rehabilitation on a knife-edge

Three texts keep Mackay’s rehabilitation on a knife-edge

New Wigan manager said all the right things - but until the FA’s verdict is delivered he is still on probation, says Ian Herbert
Louis van Gaal: the liberal, the enemy and... err, the poet

Louis van Gaal: the liberal, the enemy and... err, the poet

‘O, Louis’ is the plaintive title of a biography about the Dutchman. Ian Herbert looks at what it tells us about the Manchester United manager