Lives of the fellows

Kenneth (Sir) Robson

b.5 March 1909 d.7 December 1978
Kt(1968) CBE(1959) MRCS LRCP(1933) MB Bchir Cantab(1934) MA(1934) MRCP(1935) MD(1944) FRCP(1943) FRCPE(1975)†

Kenneth Robson was the 39th registrar since 1579, and succeeded Sir Harold Boldero in 1961 at a critical time for the College, for the new building was about to begin. His greatest service was to ensure with exemplary tact that the outburst of new ideas and activities which followed the move to Regent’s Park did not obscure the historic mission and traditions of the College, the preservation of which he felt to be the particular responsibility of his office.

Ken, or KR as he was widely known, came from a Scottish Presbyterian family, his grandfather and great grandfather having been ministers of that church, as is one brother. He was born in London, the youngest of eight children of John Ajmer Robson, a stockjobber, and Katherine, the daughter of Samuel Osborn, a steelmaster. His nephew Angus Osborn Robson was elected FRCP in 1973. Ken’s qualities of kindness, patience, diligence and inflexible integrity may well have owed much to his upbringing in this closely knit religious family.

He was educated at Bradfield and Christ’s College, Cambridge, before entering the Middlesex Hospital, where he had a distinguished undergraduate career and became the second Broderip scholar. After qualifying he held appointments at the Middlesex Hospital and at the Brompton Hospital, where he soon developed his lasting interest in thoracic medicine. He was appointed to the staff of both St George’s and the Brompton Hospitals and continued to serve them until his retirement in 1975. He was also on the staff of King Edward VII Hospital for Officers in Beaumont Street (Sister Agnes’s) and King Edward VII Hospital, Midhurst, and was chief medical referee for the Confederation Life Insurance Company.

He was awarded the CBE in 1959 and received a knighthood in 1968. He became a fellow of the Edinburgh College of Physicians in 1975 and was also an honorary fellow of the Royal Australian College of Physicians, the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland, the American College of Physicians and the South African College of Physicians.

In 1938 he joined the medical branch of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, and spent his wartime service mainly as medical specialist at RAF Hospital Cosford, near Wolverhampton, and No 9 RAF Hospital, India, before becoming RAF consultant physician in India and the Far East, until he was demobilized in 1946 with the rank of air commodore. In 1949 he succeeded Sir John Conybeare as civilian consultant to the Royal Air Force, and in 1977 was appointed honorary air commodore to the RAF Central Medical Establishment, an honour only once bestowed before. ‘He was’, wrote two Air Force colleagues, ‘a good friend of generations of RAF physicians and he made it his business to know them all personally …’.

Of the many societies and clubs to which he belonged he was happiest in the Thoracic Society, of which he was secretary from 1947 to 1960, president in 1965 and thereafter an honorary member; and in the Wilks Club, of which he was the indefatigable secretary and epicurean caterer till the time of his death.

Sir Kenneth’s long association with the College began when he took the MRCP in 1935. He was elected to the fellowship in 1943 and in 1944 gave the Goulstonian lectures. He was an examiner from 1949 to 1957 and a censor in 1959-1960. When Sir Harold Boldero died suddenly in 1961 there was an hiatus in the College. Who could be found to succeed this man who had become almost a college institution? Discussion soon centred on one name and, as it turned out, Ken Robson was a happy choice. He served as adjutant and confidential adviser to five presidents. At different times each paid tribute to the help that they had received from this quiet, conservative and old-fashioned (in the best English sense), but very efficient and effective man, and to his wisdom and firmness when firmness was required.

He made no secret, for instance, of his strong disapproval of any kind of industrial action by doctors. He could be tough, particularly in matters affecting the interests of the College. There is a well-authenticated story of a fellow who arrived for a council of obligation announcing that he must leave by 4.0 pm. He was told that he must see the registrar. The registrar’s reply was terse: ‘Show Dr So-and-so to the telephone so that he can cancel his next engagement’.

The two important and long-term changes in the College in his time, namely the controlled expansion of the fellowship to make the College less an elitist body and more representative of consultants as a whole, and the establishment of the common membership UK, which brought the Scottish and London colleges closer than they had ever been before, did not originate with Ken. But once convinced of the need for such changes, he supported them loyally and applied his undoubted administrative talents to ensuring their successful implementation. Nor did he neglect overseas relationships, for he travelled widely on behalf of the College, and his four honorary fellowships from overseas colleges show how much his interest in them was appreciated.

In his own College his extraordinary memory for detail, including the deeds and misdeeds of individual fellows, was proverbial, as was his meticulous keeping of College records, and his detailed preparation for all meetings, particularly those concerned with elections to the fellowship. Outside his own College the respect with which he came to be regarded was shown by his election from 1972 to 1974 as chairman of the joint consultants committee. He retired from the staff of his hospitals and the registrarship in 1975, but continued private practice from his house in Sydney Street, Chelsea, till he died.

Ken had countless friends and few enemies, for it would have been difficult for even the most rabid radical to become seriously angry with someone of such patent integrity, profound knowledge of the facts of any case he argued, and quiet modest manner. Further, his slow but genial smile was irresistible. His capacity for friendship was shown by the great popularity of his ‘firm’ at St George’s Hospital, the very large number of his house physicians and registrars who came from far and wide to a farewell dinner on his retirement, and by the esteem in which he was held in all the clubs, societies and institutions with which he was connected. A member of the portering staff of the College recalls that, on passing through the front hall on his way out, he always raised his hat (or strictly slid his hat down onto his chest) and bade them each goodnight by name. He was a generous and skilled host and a good raconteur. His great interest outside medicine was association football and in particular the fortunes of Wolverhampton Wanderers (The Wolves’), with whom his association started during his RAF service and continued till he died.

He remained unmarried. He died unexpectedly of cardiac infarction in Sister Agnes’s Hospital, while awaiting an operation for a different complaint. As was said at the time, ‘the end was characteristic of the man and was, like everything else he put his hand to, precisely and tidily accomplished’. A large congregation attended a memorial service in the Chapel of St Clement Dane (the RAF church) on 13 February 1979, when the address was given by Sir Cyril Clarke FRS. His portrait by Walter Woodington hangs in the College.

RR Bomford

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

[Brit.med.J., 1978, 2, 1720, & 1979, 1, 61, 134; Lancet, 1978, 2, 1320, & 1979,1, 58; Times, 17 Dec 1979]

(Volume VII, page 503)

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