Lives of the fellows

Robin Orlando Hamilton (Sir) Irvine

b.15 September 1929 d.29 September 1996
Kt(1989) MB ChB NZ(1953) MRACP(1958) MD(1958) MRCP(1959) FRACP(1965) FRCP(1973) Dr hc Edin(1976) Hon LLD Otago(1993)

Sir Robin Irvine, a New Zealander who spent virtually his whole life in Dunedin, was the first Otago graduate to become the University’s vice-chancellor. Born in Dunedin, his father Claude was a company director of a New Zealand export firm. Irvine was educated at a well-known preparatory school, Huntley, and then at a leading New Zealand public school, Wanganui Collegiate School. Thereafter he attended the University of Otago Medical School for six years, qualifying in 1953.

He spent a year at the Auckland Hospital as a house physician. He then moved to Dunedin, holding a research assistant post and registrar post under Horace Smirk [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IX, p.482]. After successfully presenting his research studies under Smirk he was awarded his MD in 1958. With a Nuffield dominion travelling fellowship and a Leverhulme research scholarship to support him he then undertook postgraduate studies in London at the Middlesex Hospital and the Postgraduate Medical School at Hammersmith, from 1958 to 1960. At Hammersmith he pursued his special interest in renal medicine and was influenced by the guidance given him by Malcolm Milne [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IX, p.367] with whom he published several papers. John McMichael [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IX, p.341] also inspired him. He also rubbed shoulders with people such as Sheila Sherlock, Russell Fraser [q.v.], Colin Dollery and Christopher Booth.

Returning to Auckland in 1961, Irvine held a research post at the Auckland Hospital where he was the Isaacs research fellow and then tutor and medical specialist in the branch faculty medical unit. He continued his interest in renal disorders and published further papers on the subject.

Ten years after graduating and with his MD and membership examinations of the Royal Colleges to his credit, he responded to an invitation from John Hunter (who in 1962 had succeeded Sir Horace Smirk as professor) to move to the Otago Medical School as a lecturer. Over the next five years Irvine maintained his clinical research and published profusely on renal and metabolic disorders in leading medical journals. In addition he demonstrated what a fine physician and superb teacher he had become and before long progressed to senior lecturer level. He was becoming a candidate for a professorship and a potential recruit for a chair in medicine in Australasia when his career took an unexpected turn.

He accepted an appointment, and a challenging one at that, to become clinical dean of the Otago Medical School, a new post created when William Adams was appointed dean, following the so-called Christie review in 1968. Adams had been professor of anatomy for twenty four years. With one of the major outcomes of the review, the extension of the Otago school into two clinical schools, one in Christchurch and one in Wellington, considerable negotiating and assistance was required to effect this expansion and therein the role of a ‘clinical dean was established. Irvine, now a professor, became the driving force in this operation, after he had developed a plan acceptable to the University Council and University Grants Committee. Although lost to clinical medicine, Irvine established himself as a highly successful administrator and a tough negotiator. The University Council was impressed, so much so that five years later Irvine was invited to fill the vacant vice-chancellor post. He served in this role for twenty years and through some difficult economic times. He set himself high goals and applied himself to new challenges with vigour and determination. His work load was phenomenal. He bent over backwards not to favour the faculty of medicine, often to the chagrin of its new dean, John Hunter, who felt that the vice-chancellor was not delegating sufficient authority to his deans. Nevertheless, Irvine achieved wonders in the post. In time he became chairman of the New Zealand Vice-Chancellors’ Committee which he led with great authority.

There was little doubt that Robin Irvine was an ambitious person and one assumes that being a successful vice-chancellor largely satisfied that ambition as he must have been head hunted from time to time to move to other leadership areas. He broadened his contributions by serving on many outside committees and boards of organizations. Even after his retirement in 1993 he accepted many important appointments. He became chairman of the Ross Dependency Research Committee advising the New Zealand government on Antarctic science, chairman of the board of the International Centre of Antarctic Information and Research and director of the National Institute of Environmental Health and Forensic Science, to name but a few of his commitments. In addition he held positions on several Dunedin community organizations such as chairman of the board of directors of the Mercy Hospital and a director of Dunedin City Holdings.

His professional qualifications included fellowships of the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal Australasian College of Physicians. In later years he became a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and a fellow of the New Zealand Institute of Management. He was honoured with the award of the Queen’s Jubilee medal in 1977 and in 1989 his services to the University and to the wider community were appropriately recognized by the award of a knighthood. Edinburgh University conferred on him an honorary doctorate when he represented the Otago faculty of medicine at Edinburgh Medical School’s tercentenary commemoration in 1976. His own university conferred an honorary doctorate on him on his retirement in 1993.

Irvine's relationship with students and the younger generation was a happy one. He served in the territorial forces over the years before being made vice-chancellor and progressed to the rank of lieutenant colonel in charge of the medical school’s army officer training unit.

Robin Irvine led a full life involving himself in numerous activities, but not detracting from his dedication to his University work. His advice was sought from many quarters including government ministers. Whatever the task he prided himself on ‘doing his homework’ fastidiously. He was a popular and accomplished speaker, seldom having recourse to notes and often demonstrating an incredible memory for people’s names. In his later years, like modern professors, he developed a close affinity with his desk computer and many of his colleagues would have loved to have access to his recorded thoughts. His office was probably the tidiest in the university without evidence of surrounding files and papers. After his sojourn as a visiting fellow at Green College, Oxford, in 1986, his occasional lectures and publications were more philosophical, often stressing a wider role for the University in the community.

His industry never slackened and his work load was phenomenal. He was a good listener, although not always particularly sympathetic with staff who performed deficiently, but therein he was a strong administrator. Some of his colleagues thought he did not show a good deal of originality, rather he seized on good ideas of others and developed them into reports or plans that had clarity and authority. In his time as a physician and a lecturer in medicine his clinical notes were the best ever written in the hospital setting and became a fine example for junior staff over many years.

Robin was given tremendous support by his wife, Elizabeth (‘Bunty’), whom he married in 1957. She was also a medical graduate and for most of her married life she was a senior lecturer in physiology at the Otago Medical School. They had a family of one son and two daughters. No one could surpass the generous hospitality they extended to visitors and staff alike. In his retirement beginning at the end of 1993 Robin did not slacken his tempo despite myelo-monocytic leukaemia overtaking him.

John Hunter

(Volume X, page 245)

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