Lives of the fellows

Ewen Thomas Taylor Downie

b.22 April 1902 d.1 August 1977
MB BS Melb(1925) MD(1929) MRCP(1928) FRCP(1945) FRACP(1938)

Ewen Downie (he rarely used his middle names) was the son of Thomas Taylor Downie and Katherine Maude Smith. His father was a well known obstetrician in Melbourne. Ewen graduated from the University of Melbourne in 1925 and spent a two-year period as a resident and registrar at the Alfred Hospital, one of the teaching hospitals of the University of Melbourne. He made the conventional medical pilgrimage to London where he was a clinical assistant (probably unpaid) to Francis (later Sir Francis) Fraser at St Bartholomew’s Hospital. He spent two years in London and became a member of the Royal College of Physicians, a sine qua non for ultimate success as a specialist physician in Australia.

Downie started practice as a consultant physician with a particular interest in diabetes. He worked for two or three years as a research fellow at the Baker Institute for Medical Research and developed a clinic at the Alfred Hospital for the special care of the diabetic. This was one of the earliest diabetic clinics in Melbourne, and diabetes was to remain one of Downie’s principal and abiding interests for the rest of his life. In 1932 he was appointed as physician to outpatients at the Alfred Hospital, and in the same year he became sub-dean of the Alfred Hospital Clinical School. He continued his interest in student and educational affairs for the next 25 years.

After his return from the war he became dean of the Clinical School, and was for two years (1947-1948) Stewart lecturer in medicine at the University of Melbourne, which at that time had no clinical professors; the appointment to the Stewart lectureship was a de facto professorial appointment.

Downie continued to promote the interests of the diabetic, and encouraged many younger graduates in this specialty. By the mid-1950’s he had created a small team of researchers, for whom he established an environment in which a productive amalgam of clinical and basic research could be undertaken. This medical unit was first called the diabetic and metabolic unit, but in 1968 was named after him, and it still bears his name: the Ewen Downie Diabetic and Metabolic Unit. His contributions to diabetes were recognized by invitations to give a Banting lecture in Toronto in 1955, and a Lilly lecture to the American College of Physicians in 1957.

His interest in diabetes and metabolism resulted in the birth of endocrinology as a distinct sectional specialty of internal medicine in Australia. This led to the formation of the Endocrine Society of Australia in 1958; Downie was the first president of the Society (1958 -1960) and was made a life member in 1967. He was a member of the American Endocrine Society, and of the American and British Diabetes Associations, and was a consulting editor for the journal Diabetes.

Like many of his contemporaries, he served in the Australian Army during the second world war. He held senior posts in the Army as a specialist physician, and was ADGMS in Washington, DC, in 1944, where he made many friends who became part of his international network — people to whom he could and did refer his younger protégés for training and advice. He ended his Army career as a colonel.

In addition to his responsibilities as a physician to the Alfred Hospital, he was elected to the board of management of the Hospital in 1952, and remained on the board until he retired in 1962.

He was vice president of the Hospital for the two years prior to his retirement. Thus, he had been associated with the Alfred Hospital from the time he entered as an undergraduate medical student in 1922 until he retired in 1962. Downie continued to practise almost until his death. The latter years of his practising life were hampered by a serious physical disability (laryngectomy). Notwithstanding his problem of speech, he participated in public meetings and never lost interest in the affairs of the diabetic. His fortitude during these latter years was a source of admiration from friends and critics alike. Downie did have his critics. He could be quite acidic in conversations with colleagues and others who had not gained his respect.

He did not tolerate fools. He believed in the establishment and order of events, and was without mercy on those who created disorder. Downie was intensely loyal to those who served him well; he would spare no personal effort to help younger people in their professional careers, or young diabetics who needed great moral support during their developing years to cope with their disability.

In 1932 he married Muriel Mary, daughter of John Cumming, a member of a well known Victorian pastoralist family. They had one son (Ewen Jr), and one daughter.

B Hudson

(Volume VII, page 166)

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