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AN APPRECIATION OF JOHN HOLTER

Moyna P. Gilbertson
23 June 2004

We are all here today to remember and rejoice in the life of John William Holter. Most of us knew him, to those of you who only know him by repute – you missed a real treat. John was a vibrant warm person, an enthusiast in everything he did, and with a wicked sense of fun and humour.

He was an engineer and successful businessman, but when in 1955 his son Casey was born with severe myelomeningocoele and developed hydrocephalus at the age of three months, John devoted all his time and professional skills to developing shunting systems for the treatment of hydrocephalus. Working with a surgeon, Dr Spitz, a one-way valve was designed and the first Spitz Holter system was inserted in Philadelphia in March 1956. It was brought to England by George Macnab – the first President of this Society – in 1958 and this led to its use worldwide.

John was of course an American and an Honorary Member of the American Association of Neurosurgeons but he revelled most in his recognition in the UK. In 1963 he was made an Honorary Member of this society – the first non-medical person to be so honoured. He remained an enthusiastic member throughout his life, a vigorous participant at the Society’s annual meetings which he attended regularly. I remember many years ago commenting on a very pro-British tie that he was wearing; he was delighted that it had been noticed and always after that each year he sported a new version.

He became a great benefactor of the Society and in 1965 inaugurated the Casey Holter Lecture and Essay prizes in memory of his son.

In 1976 Sheffield University conferred an Honorary D Sc on him. In May 1998 he was invested as an Honorary CBE, an honour of which he was intensely proud. There were many tributes paid in support of John’s nomination for a British Honour, which he of course never saw. I would like to share a few with you…

  • ‘his unique and important contribution to the treatment of hydrocephalus’

  • from parents ‘an enormous sense of indebtedness to Dr Holter’

  • ‘Dr Holter has made a bigger contribution to the revolution which has taken place in the treatment of hydrocephalus in the past thirty years than any other single individual’

  • ‘his wisdom and dogged persistence’

  • ‘such an approachable person’

  • ‘the design of his valve was pure genius’

  • and from another parent ‘his life saving invention so dramatically improved the life expectancy of those with hydrocephalus’

  • Finally, from the President of ASBAH, a medical doctor who himself has spina bifida ‘the shunt has changed the lives of so many with hydrocephalus it would give me the greatest satisfaction to know that this remarkable man has been granted the official recognition he so fully deserves’

We have become so possessive of John and have regarded him as ours that some of his other achievements have perhaps not been appreciated by us, but he made other innovative and notable contributions to medicine including designing heart valves and artificial hearts used in research and development.

He was a soldier serving with the American Army from 1941-45 and seeing action in North Africa, Italy and France.

Between 1989 and 1993, he donated more than $600,000 to local charities. “I’d rather do it while I’m alive and see it do some good,” he said in 1993, “rather than have an estate and have the lawyers fighting over it.” In 1991, he gave a $100,000 charitable annuity to the United Way of Pinellas County. The gift, in the form of stock, was to transfer to the United Way upon the deaths of Mr. Holter and one other person, whom he declined to name.

A keen sailor he enjoyed this hobby particularly after he retired.

When John wrote to me after his investiture he said ‘I wish my wonderful mom was alive and present, she probably was watching from her well-earned place in heaven, I hope so’.

At 80 years old he said to a senior member of this society ‘I must attend the scientific papers to tell them what they have done wrong, and how to do it better’. Well John is no longer with us to do that, but I am sure reunited with his wonderful mom he will be with us in spirit – urging us all on to do it better.

So in loving memory of John and in gratitude for his life – The Trumpet shall Sound.