Lives of the fellows

John Douglas Robertson

b.30 June 1903 d.14 January 1961
MB ChB St And(1926) DPH Eng(1929) MD St And(1930) PhD Lond(1937) DSc St And(1939) MRCP(1938) FRSE(1942) FRIC(1945) FRCP(1946)

John Douglas Robertson was born in Arbroath where his father, Alexander Maclaren Robertson, was an important local figure, being magistrate and provost. His mother was formerly Georgina Douglas. After a distinguished career as a schoolboy and undergraduate he held a number of house appointments, including house surgeon to the famous ‘Jock’ Anderson, one of the best-known surgeons of the day in Scotland. Anderson had a profound effect on Robertson’s character, and they remained fast friends until Anderson’s untimely death.

He came to London as one of the founder members of the staff of the Courtauld Institute of Biochemistry, completed at the Middlesex Hospital in 1928. From assistant in the clinical section he was promoted to the senior position in relation to tests on patients, which he held for twenty years. A man of great personal charm, his relations with patients were truly remarkable; he could make them do some of the rather unpleasant things, such as swallowing tubes, with such elegance that they appeared almost to enjoy it, and it was largely through his work that a suitable technique was evolved for the determination of the basal metabolic rate in ambulatory patients, and an entirely new set of British standards was set up.

Fundamentally, Robertson was an observational scientist, but he also performed a number of experimental investigations, particularly concerned with intra-ocular tension. He was very interested in conducting experiments on himself. He would put himself on the most extraordinary diets, and would alarm his friends by losing weight at such a rate that people thought he had a malignant disease. Another peculiarity was his addiction to exposing himself to ultra-violet light. This produced a complexion of deep mahogany. Shortly after the war he left the Courtauld Institute to become clinical pathologist at the London Clinic, and later pathologist to the West London Hospital.

No discussion of Robertson would be complete without mention of his prowess at sport. A small, lithe figure, he showed astonishing versatility at his university, playing in the first teams for Rugby, hockey and cricket. Later in life he took up squash rackets, and became a very serious competition player. He was married in 1947 to Evelyn Mary Hooper, née Woodforde, a divorcée, daughter of Frederick James Woodforde, a retired commander, R.N.

Richard R Trail

[Brit.med.J., 1961, 1, 137-8; Lancet, 1961, 1, 678-9, 726.]

(Volume V, page 352)

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