Lives of the fellows

Ian Oriel Thorburn

b.21 August 1903 d.6 May 1985
Kt St John(1969) MB BS Melb(1928) MD(1931) MRCP(1933) FRCP(1959)

Ian Thorburn was born and died in Perth, Western Australia. His father, Ernest Smet Thorburn, died in early life and he was raised by his mother, Laura Louisa Growse.

Ian was educated at Guildford Grammar School and proceeded to Melbourne University, where he graduated in 1928 and took his MD in 1931. After resident appointments at Melbourne (afterwards Royal Melbourne), the Children’s (afterwards Royal Children’s) and Women’s Hospital in Melbourne, he returned to Western Australia as medical registrar at the Perth (afterwards Royal Perth) Hospital in 1932. Between 1933-34 he was a postgraduate in London, taking courses, and later he worked at the Royal Chest Hospital. He returned to Western Australia as medical superintendent of the Royal Perth Hospital for a two year period, ending 1936; shortly afterwards being appointed honorary physician in general medicine, and honorary physician in infectious diseases, at the same hospital. He held these appointments until his retirement in 1963.

It was his role in infectious diseases that made him the beloved physician, in every sense, to hundreds of poliomyelitis and diphtheria patients. He was physician to the infectious diseases branch of the Royal Perth Hospital for at least three decades; his tenure including three epidemics of poliomyelitis between 1948 and 1956. His dedication to acutely ill patients was without peer. Those were the days of the iron lung, tracheostomy and terrible tragedy amongst young people and children with diphtheria. He would spend countless hours at the bedside of acutely ill and dying patients. A succession of his former registrars, now senior physicians on the staff of the Royal Perth Hospital, remember him as a conservative physician completely absorbed by his work. He was often observed to be ill at ease on social occasions and avoided them whenever possible, sometimes even prolonging clinical rounds to achieve this purpose. His outpatient clinics and ward rounds were long standing and painstaking, and often did not finish until 10 p.m. The profound clinician, imbued with the value of repeated clinical observation, he was distrustful of laboratory fads but welcomed tested developments. A ditty composed about him in a residents’ sing-song in 1952 reflected not only his conservative practice of medicine but also the affection and trust in which he was held by patients and colleagues alike:
In the ward of 42 there’s a happy little throng,
If you want to hear about it just listen to our song,
You’ve got to watch your ulcer if you’re put in under Thor,
You’ll still be holding up a bed in 1984.

He believed strongly in honorary service, and saw the introduction of sessional payment to specialists working in public hospitals as a disaster for the independence of the medical profession. He adhered strongly to his belief in principles. He could not stomach bureaucracy. He was a man of great faith and a convinced Anglican. He was always hospitable in his own home, where he used to have monthly meetings and discussed physiology with his junior medical staff. He was popular as a clinical teacher and for many years participated in the teaching of the introductory course in clinical methods to medical students in the University of Western Australia, even after his retirement from hospital practice. He held the first and principal appointment in teaching medicine in the University Dental School.

In 1936 he married Patricia Margaret Lilian May, a nursing sister he met in Melbourne, and this was an extremely close and lifelong relationship.

Thor’s only recreation was golf. His main extra-curricular interest was in the St John Ambulance Association, to which he gave nearly 50 years of service. He was made a knight of St John of Jerusalem in 1969. He gave generously to educational charities, notably to his old school, Guildford Grammar, and he was president of Bush Church Aid which provided support for Anglican communities in isolated areas.

In 1959 the conversion of the infectious diseases branch of the Royal Perth Hospital into the Royal Perth Rehabilitation Hospital was established, with specialist services in other hands, but Thorburn never lost his dedication to the institution and its affairs, contributing wise counsel and support to both patients and colleagues. In 1977, amongst the last of the former honorary consultants at Royal Perth Hospital, he was appointed emeritus consultant physician. Even though he discontinued attending the medical outpatient clinic at the Hospital, he was still to be seen at postgraduate meetings - recognizable by his lean build and the whiskers sticking out of his ears. He reluctantly closed his private consulting rooms in 1983.

At the time of Ian Thorburn’s death in his 82nd year he had weakened in his mind and was fortunate to have been continuously cared for by a physician who had one time been his registrar. He gave long and dedicated service to the Royal Perth Hospital and his name is proudly displayed on the Memorial Boards.

K Somers

[Uninews, Univ.Western Aust.,4,7,May 1985; Servio News, Roy.Perth Hosp., 11,6,May 1985; The Brigade,St John Ambulance Assoc.,West.Aust.,Aug 1985; Annual Report 1984-5,Roy.Perth Hosp.]

(Volume VIII, page 505)

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