Lives of the fellows

Hugh Norwood (Sir) Robson

b.18 October 1917 d.11 December 1977
Kt(1974) MB ChB Edin(1941) MRCPE(1947) FRCPE(1952) FRACP(1954) MRCP(1961) FRCP(1966) FRSE(1975)†

Some men are born leaders and Norrie Robson was of their company. He was an outstanding administrator in both university and medical affairs. A Scot, he was a Borderer from Langholm, Dumfriesshire, where his father, Hugh Robson, was a civil servant with the Inland Revenue. His mother, Elizabeth Warnock, was a farmer’s daughter. Norrie was educated at Langholm and Dumfries academies and then studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh. As a student he evinced a rare combination of gravitas and high good humour which earned him both affection and respect. It was during his undergraduate days that he met Alice Livingstone, a fellow medical student, whom he married in 1942, a year after he graduated. The second world war separated them soon after their marriage when Norrie served as a surgeon lieutenant in the RNVR. His war service took him widely all over the world, from the Western Approaches to Singapore.

Norrie found ample outlet for his youthful enterprise and exuberance in Singapore when he found himself, soon after VJ Day, among a small group of doctors billeted in the bridal suite of the Adelphi Hotel, because it had a telephone in it. Their job was to provide a medical service for the ships of all nations, which filled the harbour. Norrie Robson was instrumental in acquiring the transport essential for the job; it consisted of two scruffy and ancient launches which he christened HMS Cyanosis and HMS Dementia, and from them the Malay skippers proudly flew white ensigns of uncertain provenance. If ever there was a time when enterprise was needed to do work which occupied the best part of twenty four hours this was it, and Norrie had enterprise in abundance.

On demobilization he resumed his academic career, being appointed to a lectureship in medicine in Edinburgh in 1947, to a senior lectureship in medicine in Aberdeen in 1950, and to the Mortlock chair of medicine in the University of Adelaide in 1953. He was thirty five years old at the time and it was the first full-time professorship in medicine in Adelaide - indeed, only the second in all Australia. Norrie had to face the task of developing a department of medicine with full-time staff, instead of the older and well established system of part-time clinical teachers. Recognition of his success and brilliant administrative gifts was clearly evidenced by the list of appointments to which his colleagues elected him; many were professional, but others were non-clinical or advisory. He took great pride in one in particular - that of consultant physician to the Royal Australian Navy. He was also honorary physician to a number of Adelaide hospitals and a member of many bodies, including the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia, the Australian Drug Evaluation Committee, and the Papua and New Guinea Medical Research and Advisory Committee.

He was president of the Australian Society of Haematology and councillor for Australia of the International Society of Haematology. He was dean of the faculty of medicine 1959-1961, chairman of the professorial board 1961 -1963, and member of council 1964 -1965; and he acted as external examiner for a number of universities. The twelve years of his stay at the University of Adelaide were to see his flowering as a teacher and clinical practitioner of medicine, as well as service to the University as a whole. His public service within Australia would itself merit a full tribute.

All this experience in Australia stood Norrie Robson in good stead when he returned to Britain in 1966 to become vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield. Invaluable also were the three years he had spent as a senior lecturer in Aberdeen under RS Aitken, later to be vice-chancellor of Birmingham University. Both men had a high intellectual capacity and remarkable scientific insight, combined with kindliness of spirit and determination of purpose. Robson’s arrival at Sheffield was timely, for at that time Aitken was the only other medical vice-chancellor in the United Kingdom, and it was clear that the universities were to be faced with many problems of medical policy and medical education. They were to be years of student unrest and student change, of necessary internal reorganization and development; a time of rapid expansion with the doubling of student numbers after the Robbins report, and it was the confidence and trust which Norrie Robson inspired in the whole community which carried the University through the turbulence of the next few years, without the stresses experienced in many other universities.

One of his favourite stories concerned a distinguished foreign visitor whom he had to entertain soon after his own arrival at the University. Over lunch, as vice-chancellor, he sang the praises of the University library, to which the guest was to make a gift of books. Once lunch was over, he led his guest at a brisk pace across the campus, coming to a sudden halt to ask his registrar, ‘Where is the damned library, anyway?’

From the beginning an important part of his role was to add lustre to the University by making his mark in national affairs, and he found the way open in his own field. His years in Adelaide had provided considerable experience in medical politics, not just on local, but on an international scale, and he was now able to put it to good use. Within three years he became chairman of the Central Committee for Postgraduate Medical Education (Great Britain), and then of the Council for Postgraduate Medical Education in England and Wales, newly formed in 1970. He was vice-chairman of the committee of vice-chancellors and principals, being elected chairman in 1972, when he succeeded Sir Fraser Noble. In 1971 he had also become chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. They were hectic and difficult years in which to combine such varied responsibilities. Everything began to go wrong with the world’s economic system, and in Britain the zeal for reform produced endless complexities for every institution. There was an obsession with the machinery of government and administration, so that the design was constantly changed instead of being efficiently improved. Nobody was more impatient with this than Norrie, yet he endured the wasteful calls on his energy with patience and goodwill. His health sometimes caused anxiety, and he suffered pain from arthritis, but although he was never a compliant patient he came through these strenuous years resiliency. When his alma mater called him to return in 1974, as principal and vice-chancellor, he responded with the enthusiastic pride of a young Scot picked for his first international at Murrayfield.

He was clearly elated by the prospect of a return to his native land, and to the city and university where he had begun his service in medicine, and where he had met and courted Alice Livingstone, the constant source of so much of his strength. He was also keenly aware of the growing calls for devolution in Scotland and their implications for the universities, in which he had been rallying opinion against the hints of regionalization of higher education, which Sir William Pile had first cast around at a meeting of the CVCP held in Sheffield in 1972. He was therefore prepared for one aspect of his new role, but nothing in his Sheffield experience paralleled the internal constitutional horrors which confronted him in his first year in Edinburgh. He had to rally all his personal resources and draw on reserves of tact and acumen. In this he was greatly helped by the election of a new rector with whom he formed a determined and skilful alliance. He was also supported by the wisdom and experience of senior colleagues on senate and court, and he set himself to resolve the problems and strengthen the University to enable it to meet the challenge of hard times. Within two years he had won the affection and respect of the whole University, restoring its pride in the greatness of the past and its confidence in the future.

Norrie Robson was a man of courage and determination who liked to think things through for himself. He had a gift of lucid, uncomplicated exposition and his straightforward honesty and directness earned him credit and sympathy in many a difficult debate. There was also something of a stubborn streak in him which refused to give way before the best intentioned argument, and sometimes he appeared to overlook the subtle complexities of certain problems,seeing things in black and white. It is however a measure of his sincerity and strength of purpose, and of his ability as an administrator, that his friends and colleagues were not only saddened by his untimely death but also felt they had been deprived of a unique store of wisdom and experience.

Robson was knighted in 1974; he held the title of emeritus professor in the University of Adelaide, an honorary LLD of the University of Sheffield, and an honorary DSc of the University of Pennsylvania. He also acted as external examiner in medicine in the universities of Sydney, Melbourne, Western Australia and Otago, and held visiting professorships or guest lectureships at the universities of Sheffield, New York, Chicago, St Louis, Salt Lake City, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Christchurch and Dunedin. He served as Honeyman-Gillespie lecturer in Edinburgh 1949-1959; as Listerian lecturer in Adelaide in 1954; as Bancroft lecturer in Queensland in 1965, and as Keith Inglis memorial lecturer in Sydney in 1968.

Norrie was a man who believed in the concept of community; a man who succeeded in fostering cooperative working relationships in all parts of a university, and who was successful in bringing about easier interaction and communication between university, city and region.

He was survived by his wife, two daughters, one of whom is a doctor, and a son.

Sir Fraser Noble
Sir Gordon Wolstenholme
Valérie Luniewska

† The list of honorary degrees is too lengthy to include in entirety.

[Brit.med.J., 1977, 2, 1676; 1978, 1, 249, 375; Lancet, 1977, 2, 1370; 1978, 1, 166; Times, 12 Dec 1977; Times Higher Ed. Supplement, 16 Dec 1977; Year Book RSE, 1979, pp.58-63]

(Volume VII, page 500)

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