Lives of the fellows

William Austin Robb

b.18 February 1893 d.12 July 1948
MB BS Lond(1924) MD Lond(1926) MRCS LRCP(1924) MRCP(1926) FRCP(1945)

W. A. Robb was born at Burnt, Ely, the son of William James Burgess Robb, farmer, and Fanny Grace Haydon. He was educated privately at Barton School, Wisbech.

Robb was of Suffolk yeoman stock and always a countryman at heart. Initially he wished to become a veterinary surgeon, but by chance he took up pharmacy and by the early age of twenty-one had qualified. On the outbreak of war in 1914 he joined the R.A.M.C, and went to France as surgeon-dispenser in the 36th Field Ambulance. Knowing Robb it was not surprising that his dispensary became a byword for efficiency. In the German breakthrough in 1916 Robb was severely wounded and taken prisoner whilst superintending the evacuation of wounded.

After recovery in a German hospital he was pressed to stay on account of his valuable services, but insisted on being sent to a prisoner-of-war camp. His description of the German guards, who were of poor physique, calling ‘langsam’ as the British prisoners marched, was typical of the indomitable spirit shown by our men and of Robb in particular.

After the war Robb decided to take up medicine. In 1919 he became a student at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital. On qualifying he was appointed house physician and later chief assistant to Langdon-Brown. It was Exeter’s gain and St. Bartholomew’s loss when Robb was appointed pathologist to the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital. There he built up a busy department and his wide experience in general medicine made his room the rendezvous for his colleagues, both consultant and general practitioner.

Although a native of East Anglia, Robb found the West Country much to his liking and covered the greater part of Devonshire in his walks. At the outbreak of the Second World War, in addition to his arduous work as pathologist to many hospitals in Exeter and the surrounding county, he undertook the organisation of the regional blood transfusion service. This he did with his usual efficiency, but it seems probable that the strain of his many duties was a serious factor in the development of the malignant hypertension from which he died in 1948.

Robb lived at a time when specialisation had not narrowed the scope of a man’s knowledge as much as it did in later years. He brought to his specialty a wide knowledge of general medicine; he was a trained pharmacist, and above all a man of great humility, who was always prepared to help those who came for advice. He was intolerant of slipshod methods; it was only necessary to see the efficiency of his laboratory to see why.

Robb married Anna, the daughter of Edmund Austin, J.P., farmer, of Brede, Sussex. By her he had a son and a daughter. He was uncommonly fortunate in his family life for both he and his wife were country folk. His son qualified as a medical practitioner, and his daughter as a nurse and midwife.

Richard R Trail

[Brit.med.J., 1948, 2, 229; Lancet, 1948, 2, 166.]

(Volume V, page 350)

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