Lives of the fellows

Selwyn Graham Nelson

b.23 November 1908 d.8 July 1996
OBE KStJ BSc Sydney(1929) MB BS(1930) MRACP(1939) MRCP(1947) MRCP Edin(1947) FRACP(1954) FRCP(1969) FACRM(1980) MD(1984)

Selwyn Graham Nelson’s career in rheumatology spanned a period of forty years during which time there were spectacular advances in the treatment of rheumatic diseases. His career saw the emergence of rheumatology from relative obscurity into its deserved place among the medical specialties.

Selwyn Nelson was educated at Sydney Boys’ High School and later went on to study medicine at the University of Sydney, graduating in 1930. He did his residency training at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital (RPA). In 1933 he married Wilhelmina Rowohl (Willa), who had been a fellow medical student, and together they established a general practice in Blayney. Just before the war they moved back to Randwick, Sydney, and passed their examinations for membership of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians.

While in general practice Selwyn had been attracted to the care of patients with chronic disease. He was commissioned by Sir Herbert Schlink, chairman of the RPA hospital, to investigate trends in rheumatic diseases with a view to setting up an arthritis clinic. In 1947 Nelson qualified for membership of both the London and Edinburgh Colleges of Physicians and gained further experience in his area of special interest. On his return to Australia he devoted himself wholeheartedly to the care of people with arthritis and related conditions, establishing and developing the arthritis clinic at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. His success was a tribute to his hard work, determination and example. As an associate physician he did not have access to the inner circle of influence, and so he had to work harder and with less support than some in other specialties. His success was recognized by his appointment as consultant rheumatologist when he retired from the active staff in 1986. When the combined arthritis unit at the Royal Prince Alfred and Rachel Forster Hospitals was later established, his colleagues were proud to name the unit in his honour.

Selwyn will be remembered by his patients for the expert care and compassionate support which he provided and by his colleagues for the pivotal role he played in promoting the specialty, helping to establish the committees, associations, foundations and clinics which were essential to the development of rheumatology. He was one of the small group in Sydney who worked tirelessly to establish the Australian Rheumatology Association (ARA) and the Australian Rheumatism Foundation and to help define the shifting and sometimes uncertain borders between rheumatology, physical medicine and rehabilitation. When the time came to set up a regional league in the Asia/Pacific area, Selwyn helped to persuade sceptics in the International League Against Rheumatism (ILAR) that such a move was appropriate. His efforts were rewarded in 1961 with the establishment of the South East Asia and Pacific Area League Against Rheumatism (SEAPAL) - now known as the Asia Pacific League of Associations for Rheumatology (APLAR). He served as its foundation president. When it was the turn of SEAPAL to provide the president-elect of ILAR, the position was offered to Selwyn, who was the International League’s vice president at the time. Because of his uncertain health and his age, however, he felt that he should decline the honour, and nominated his colleague, Ray Robinson, in his place.

His chronic asthma did not diminish his capacity for hard work, or his willingness to extend his sphere of influence and to sit on countless committees. If his breathlessness sometimes added an edge of impatience to his voice during lengthy debate, it did not reduce the force of his argument, and may have brought some discussions more quickly to the conclusion which he sought. But there was never any suggestion of haste in the care of his patients.

His interests and influence extended beyond rheumatology. His voluntary activities included service as commissioner of the St John Ambulance Brigade and as chairman of the postgraduate committee in medicine of the University of Sydney.

Willa was a wonderful companion to Selwyn. She was herself a member of the ARA and attended most of its local and international meetings with Selwyn. They had two sons. The death in 1989 of their son, David, a noted immunologist and head of the Kolling Institute at the Royal North Shore Hospital, was a terrible blow to them both. Selwyn is remembered with admiration for the dignity and courage with which he spoke about David at the faculty meeting to which he was invited when his son’s death was recorded.

Selwyn retired from clinical practice on his 75th birthday, but retained his capacity for hard work, his enthusiasm for travel, and his devotion to his grandchildren.

J E Hassall

[Fellowship Affairs, Sept 1996]

(Volume X, page 360)

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