Lives of the fellows

Ronald Foote Robertson

b.27 December 1920 d.11 April 1991
CBE(1980) MB ChB Edin(1945) MRCPE(1947) MRCP(1949) FRCPE(1952) MD(1953) FRCP(1969) FRCPG(1978) Hon FCP&S Pakistan(1976) Hon FACP(1977) Hon FRCPI(1979) Hon FRACP(1979)

Ronnie Robertson, as he was usually known, was born in Aberdeen. He attended school at Perth Academy and in due course was admitted to Edinburgh University medical school. His student career was interrupted by an episode of pulmonary tuberculosis. This preceded the availability of chemotherapy but fortunately he made a good recovery. In spite of his illness he eventually graduated with honours, gaining the Ettles scholarship for the most distinguished graduate of the year. Within two years of graduation, he passed the membership examination of the Edinburgh College of Physicians and continued his postgraduate training with a sequence of appointments in the Edinburgh school. During this time, no doubt prompted by his personal experience, he prepared his MD thesis on pleural effusion: for this he was awarded high commendation.

The intensity of competition for consultant posts in the years following the second world war must have delayed his professional advancement in some measure, but he served as consultant physician in the Deaconess and Leith Hospitals before joining the staff of the Royal Infirmary, where he remained until his retirement.

Throughout his professional career two attributes in particular enhanced and maintained the high regard in which he was held by his patients, his colleagues, and the numerous undergraduate and postgraduate students with whom he was associated. Primarily this related to his skill as a clinician, ranging as it did over much of the field of general medicine. If he had to be identified with a special interest he might have chosen renal medicine, a subject which he sometimes used as a title for postgraduate lectures.

Fundamentally, he was a general physician. The second outstanding characteristic was his skill as a communicator: at all levels his lucidity and economy with words ensured his popularity as a teacher. Indeed, had he confined himself to clinical care and teaching his exceptional reputation would not have been diminished in any way. The whole wide range of his professional and related activities was marked by a consistently high level of competence, coupled with an apparently unlimited capacity for hard work and careful preparation for any undertaking he embarked upon.

In 1958, he became secretary of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, at a time when the work of all the Colleges was expanding rapidly, particularly in relation to the demand for higher clinical qualifications. For some years, in addition to his principal duties as secretary, he organized the membership examination for the Edinburgh College, a task subsequently undertaken by a registrar appointed for this sole purpose. He continued to hold office in the College throughout the remainder of his career and after retirement. He served as a member of council for several years, then as vice-president, and for three years as president from 1976-79. Thereafter he remained greatly in demand as chairman or member of numerous committees, and indeed at the time of his death he was still serving the College as a trustee and as overseas postgraduate director.

During his period of office as president of the Edinburgh College he travelled widely on its behalf, mainly to Commonwealth countries where fellows and members of the College were to be found, and also to visit sister colleges of physicians, many of which elected him to their honorary fellowship. Because of this experience, but perhaps even more on account of the happy facility he enjoyed for establishing good working relationships without delay wherever he went, he did much to enhance the reputation of Scottish and British medicine abroad.

Ronnie Robertson represented the Edinburgh College on the GMC for ten years and participated very actively as a member of committees and as inspecting visitor to medical schools at home and overseas. While president of the College he was an effective member of the Scottish Council for Postgraduate Medical Education. His experience as a teacher, as a member - and later as chairman - of the Edinburgh Postgraduate Board for Medicine added further to his authority and influence on postgraduate medical education. The Board’s clientele has usually included many students from overseas and he was particularly well placed to advise on many of their problems. As chairman of the JCHMT for three years he was well suited to provide guidance at a time when the formal organization of postgraduate training had been established but was at risk from inflexibility.

In 1983 he was elected president of the British Medical Association, an appointment in which he was succeeded a year later by HRH The Prince of Wales. He was physician to HM The Queen in Scotland for eight years preceding his retirement from his clinical appointments. In 1980 he was awarded the CBE.

Robertson was much in demand as an authoritative source of medical opinion for the NHS administration, for the Scottish Home and Health Department, for a large Scottish life assurance company, and for the Merchant Company of Edinburgh. Much of his success with his patients and with his students was his liking for people and his ability to provide each individual contact with his total attention. He developed an attractive facility for public speaking, particularly of the after-dinner type. His dry humour emerged in many a story or anecdote with which he laced the more serious points he wished to make. He may have modelled himself in this context on Stephen Leacock, who at one time he used to quote to splendid effect.

His wife Dorothy, whom he married in 1949, predeceased him by a year. She had been his constant companion on his travels and elsewhere and one might surmise that he may have depended on her unobtrusive support more than he perhaps realized. Certainly he was wholly bereft after her sudden death. They had three daughters, one of whom qualified in medicine. His hobbies included curling, gardening and more frequently, after his retirement, fishing for trout or salmon. But his greatest pleasure and satisfaction derived from the wide variety of activities which he maintained and especially from the broad range of personal contacts that he had established. The warmth of his friendship remains a happy souvenir with the extensive circle of friends he assembled professionally and socially around the world.

J A Strong

[Brit.med.J., 1991,302,1145; The Lancet, 1991,337,1278; Proc.RCP Edinburgh,vol.21,:3;(July 1991)]

(Volume IX, page 448)

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