Lives of the fellows

Robert Stevenson (Sir) Aitken

b.16 April 1901 d.10 April 1997
Kt(1960) MB ChB NZ(1923) Dphil Oxon(1929) MRCP(1929) FRCP(1937) MD NZ(1938) MRCP Edin( 1943) FRCP Edin(1947) FRACP(1950) Hon DSc Sydney(1952) Hon DCL 0xon(1960) Hon DSc Liverp(1967) Hon FRCP Edin(1967) Hon FDSRCS(1973) Hon LLD Aberd Hon LLD Dalhousie Hon LLD Melb Hon LLD Punjab Hon LLD McGill Hon LLD Pennsylvania Hon LLD Newfoundland Hon LLD Leicester Hon LLD Birmingham Hon LLD Otago

Robert Aitken was one of the most impressive and influential figures in medicine in post-war Britain and in his home country, New Zealand. After a distinguished undergraduate career at Dunedin he went to Balliol on a Rhodes scholarship. In an autobiographical note he wrote for the College, with characteristic self-deprecation, he describes his subsequent academic advancement in Britain - and at his home university - as though it resulted from a series of rather lucky breaks with each successive accomplishment seeming to come as a surprise to him. Of course there was little fortuitous about his achievements; he was far too able, intelligent, astute and hard working to be overlooked and the apparent surprise invitations were simply recognition of his immense talent and qualities of leadership.

By his own admission he was not an outstanding research worker; he lacked the grounding in physics and biochemistry that academic medicine at that time appeared to demand. Yet he managed to complete a sound DPhil in respiratory physiology at Oxford and was recruited by Sir Francis Fraser [Munk’s Roll, Vol.V, p.141] to the new research minded Postgraduate Medical School at Hammersmith. He enjoyed teaching and clinical medicine and happily accepted the Regius chair at the University of Aberdeen when it was offered to him in 1939. Again, modestly, he said he was not "a colourful professor" - perhaps he was a little too pragmatic to be one - but he did introduce some novel ideas, such as allowing students to take any notes or papers with them when sitting class examinations - quite a progressive notion in pre-war Britain. His talent as a proficient and innovative administrator blossomed in Aberdeen. He shepherded the medical school through the difficult war years and, in preparation for the advent of the NHS, he was asked to survey all the hospitals in a large part of Scotland, an experience that groomed him for greater involvement in the running of the service in the north east of the country when reorganization finally took place.

Then came the call to return to Dunedin. Although he and his wife, Madge, were happy in Aberdeen, he accepted the offer of the vice-chancellorship of the University of Otago. It was a time of expansion and Aitken played a large part in transforming it into a major university.

It was his success in New Zealand that led to an invitation to return to Britain to become vice-chancellor of the University of Birmingham and again he demonstrated his great skill in catalysing change as the university expanded in the wake of the Robbins report. An institution that had a modest three thousand students doubled its intake, new departments were established, new academic staff recruited, new buildings created and, as far as possible, amalgamation on the excellent Edgbaston site was achieved. Aitken was an outstanding university head. He sought advice on all matters and was always ready to change his mind if persuaded by good argument. He was greatly respected by staff and, even when the early signs of dissent and protest appeared, by students. Above all he was recognized as a man of immense and unshakable integrity and people found him easy to deal with. He could spot talent and he nurtured it by trying to provide excellent facilities for research. The university thrived under his leadership.

As vice-chairman of the Association of Universities of the British Commonwealth he played an important role in establishing links with overseas universities, for instance between his own university and the University of Rhodesia at which Birmingham degrees were awarded until the unilateral declaration of independence. In 1958 he was elected to a three year term as chairman of the United Kingdom Vice-Chancellors Committee, which gave him enormous insight into and influence over the running of universities in this country.

Always courteous and meticulous in his relationships, Robert Aitken had a slightly austere air about him, not altogether surprising for one with a Scottish Presbyterian background. But he was not at all pompous, had a nice sense of humour and could, when the occasion demanded, be quite tough and outspoken. He always showed a genuine and attentive interest in the personal affairs of new staff members, displaying an old-fashioned gentlemanliness in his enquiries. His preferred method of communication was by personal interview or, failing that, a meticulously hand written note.

He retired in 1968, just in time to escape the more dramatic student protests that met his successor Robert Hunter. Having known Robert Aitken and the way he was admired and trusted by the student body, I feel sure he would have managed to defuse the situation.

Apart from the academic activities which he handled so competently he shared with Madge an interest in the arts. He was chairman of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre and was involved in Birmingham University’s Barber Institute of Fine Arts and the Shakespeare Institute. Madge herself was an accomplished artist and pianist and an excellent hostess who helped create a sort of family feeling within the university. The Aitkens left the university an unusual and beautiful piece of sculpture - of a lissom young girl wearing nothing but a rather insouciant expression and a straw hat. Placed in a conspicuous courtyard near the student and staff recreational facilities, she became a much loved adornment to the place and thousands of photographs must have been taken of young men with their arms around her.

Madge died before Robert, who by that time had suffered two severe strokes that left him confined to a wheelchair. He faced this disability by immediately learning to write with his left hand and, with the aid of a walking frame, he was able to continue with some gardening. I remember the pride with which he showed me fruit-bearing grenadillas in the conservatory of his house in Edgbaston, each of which had to be pollinated by hand.

Sir Raymond Hoffenberg

[The Times, 23 Apr 1997; The Daily Telegraph, 2 May 1997; The Guardian, 17 Apr 1997; The Independent, 16 Apr 1997; Brit.med.J., 1997,3 14,1766]

(Volume X, page 3)

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