Announcing the Ruth Bishop Building and Ian Holmes Imaging Centre

As the new coronavirus Covid-19 spreads across the globe, the importance of vaccines and the scientists who develop them, has become increasingly apparent to society.

As I write this, the global tally for coronavirus has reached over 850,000 infections, with more than 41,600 deaths. Victoria’s cases have reached 917. Globally, governments’ efforts are aimed at slowing the spread of this virus to save lives. Coronavirus can infect all of us, but it is particularly dangerous to older age groups.


What if I were to tell you that in the year 2000 that another virus - the Rotavirus, caused the deaths of over 500,000 children under the age of five? Even today, it remains the most common cause of diarrhoea in infants, with more than 200,000 children dying, because more than 90 million children still don’t receive the vaccine.[Source: Pursuit]

Yet, it doesn’t even feature on any news headlines, as those deaths took place amongst the poorest of the poor in the world’s developing countries.


The number of deaths was halved by 2013 as a result of the introduction of the rotavirus vaccine.


It is fitting, as we face this pandemic, to honour  Professor Ruth Bishop, AO, PhD, DSc, DMSc, FASM, FRACP (Hon), the scientist who in 1973 discovered the Rotavirus, the most common cause of severe diarrhoea among infants and young children, and announce her as the namesake for our new ‘Stage 2C’ building: The “Ruth Bishop Building”.




Ruth Bishop, circa 1973. Image courtesy of The Royal Children’s Hospital Archives.


In her own words:

“In 1973 Ruth Bishop, Geoffrey Davidson, Ian Holmes, and Brian Ruck identified abundant particles of a 'new' virus (rotavirus) in the cytoplasm of mature epithelial cells lining duodenal villi and in faeces, from such children admitted to the Royal Children's Hospital, Melbourne. Rotaviruses have now been shown to cause 40-50% of severe acute diarrhea in young children worldwide in both developing and developed countries, and > 600 000 young children die annually from rotavirus disease, predominantly in South-East Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.” [Source: J Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2009 Oct;24 Suppl 3:S81-5. doi: 10.1111/j.1440-1746.2009.06076.x. Discovery of rotavirus: Implications for child health. Bishop R1.]

This major breakthrough led Ruth to develop a clinical diagnostic test and helped pave the way for the development of a live oral vaccine:

“The discovery initiated a life’s work for Ruth – understanding the virus, working out how it spreads and fighting back with treatments and vaccines, advising the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. As a result, vaccination against ‘gastro’ has been part of the National Immunisation Program for all Australian infants since July 2007, with marked reductions in diarrhea deaths and hospitalisations.” [Source: RCH blog]

Read more on the University of Melbourne’s Pursuit platform: Vaccinating newborns against the deadly rotavirus.


Ruth obtained a B. Sc., majoring in microbiology, in 1954 followed by a M. Sc. in the same field in 1958 and a PhD in 1961, all from the University of Melbourne. Ruth then undertook a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Liverpool in the UK. She returned to Australia to take up a position at the Royal Children’s Hospital in 1965 where her work on rotavirus was initiated.


Bio21’s new microscopy facility on the ground floor of the Ruth Bishop Building will be named after the Rotavirus co-discover and virologist, Professor Ian Holmes: the Ian Holmes Imaging Centre.


“Ian very generously and adventurously said, ‘alright, we’ll have a look at some of these biopsies with an electron microscope’”, recalls Bishop. “His contribution was huge because he was an expert electron microscopist, perhaps one of the most experienced and expert in the world at that time. In the first biopsy of the first child we looked at there was this previously unidentified virus. It just rushed ahead from there, ” recalls Ruth Bishop. [Source: Steven Pincock, Obituary]


“In 1973, electron microscopy revealed a previously unknown virus in the first bowel biopsy sample the team studied. The researchers subsequently found the virus in other patients' specimens. Bishop concedes that she did not appreciate the discovery's real significance until its publication provoked a global response. "It was like pressing a whole lot of light bulbs on a world map," she later recalled. "Everyone was saying 'we have found the virus too.' It was turning up everywhere." Later named for its wheel-like appearance in electron micrographs, rotavirus was soon recognized as the most common cause of severe diarrhea in infants and young children worldwide.” [Source: Bob Beale, 2002]


Prof Ian Holmes completed his undergraduate science degree at the University of Melbourne before completing a PhD on poxviruses at the Australian National University in 1961. In 1973, Ian applied his expertise in electron microscopy to intestinal biopsies collected by colleagues at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne from children with non-bacterial gastroenteritis. In these samples he discovered a new human virus, rotavirus, which he quickly identified as orbivirus-like. Later he showed that rotavirus belongs to a new group within the family Reoviridae. Ian’s rotavirus research over 27 years greatly contributed to the development of rotavirus vaccines, which are starting to have a dramatic impact on infant morbidity and mortality in many countries.

Bringing together expertise in the areas of microbiology, virology and electron microscopy, Ruth, Ian and their teams’ work is exemplary for the kinds of collaborations that we encourage and strive for at the Bio21.


For her contribution to health security and the improvement of children’s health, Professor Bishop was made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 1996, and in 2013, became the first woman to be awarded the Florey Medal by the Australian Association of Medical Research Institutes. In 2019 Ruth was awarded a Companion of the Order of Australia.


Ian Holmes received the David Syme Research Prize from The University of Melbourne (1977) and with Ruth Bishop, the Clunies Ross National Science and Technology Award (1998) for this work.


As we now socially isolate ourselves and become accustomed to frequent hand-washing, we put our faith in science to deliver a life-saving vaccine.

Thanks to the work and dedication of Ruth Bishop and Ian Holmes, a life-saving vaccine exists for rotavirus. However, it took more than 30 years to develop that vaccine. We hope and expect with modern technologies that a vaccine for the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus will be much faster, perhaps less than two years away.


Michael Parker

Director, Bio21 Institute