Lives of the fellows

Robert Andrew Douglas

b.26 March 1915 d.12 April 1998
MB BS Melb(1939) MRACP(1950) MRCP(1952) FRACP(1967) FRCP(1978) FACTM(1991)

Robert Douglas, or ‘Bob’, as he was known, was a general physician who worked in the Townsville area of Queensland, Australia. He was born in Townsville, the eldest son of Alice and Robert Douglas. Family associations with the area, however, precede any settlement at Townsville: his maternal grandfather, Andrew Ball, was the leader of a three-man expedition sent by Robert Towns (after whom Townsville was named) to find a site suitable for the boiling down and export by sea of tallow, hide and beef.

Robert was educated at St Joseph’s College, Nudgee, Brisbane and the University of Melbourne (no full course was yet available in Brisbane). He had an impressive academic record, receiving prizes for English literature, physics and chemistry. He was also captain of the football, cricket and tennis teams. He graduated in 1939 with honours in surgery, medicine, obstetrics and gynaecology. He was also awarded the Jamieson prize for first place in clinical medicine.

He did his RMO posting at the Royal Brisbane Hospital as it was necessary to do an obstetrics term to be registered in Queensland. In 1940 Bob joined the Army as a medical officer and saw active service in the Middle East and the Pacific campaigns. In the latter he took part in three landings. From 1947 to 1950 he worked as a medical officer in the Repatriation Hospital in Heidelberg.

In 1950 he gained his membership of the RACP. Bob then undertook further postgraduate studies in London. He passed his membership examination of the College in 1952.

On his return to Australia he became consultant physician to the Townsville General and Cairns Base Hospitals, as well as maintaining a very busy private practice. Bob was the first general physician to practice outside the metropolitan area in Queensland.

Bob had a brilliant mind and a voracious appetite for work. The workload was so great that he never enjoyed more than a week of annual leave until the arrival of a second physician in 1961. For many years he freely gave his time and the benefit of his experience to lecture to nurses.

The depth of his history taking, the fullness of his examinations, the thoroughness of his investigation and documentation set an example for other doctors. He wrote many original papers, including articles on sprue, Menière’s disease and serum cholesterol levels in atheroma. With his co-author E D Johnston he was the first to report on the association between aspirin and gastric ulcer.

He also wrote about anthropology and history. At the North Queensland Medical Conference in Rockhampton in 1976 he gave the Jackson Oration on Dr Anton Breinl and the Australian Institute of Tropical Medicine. This was published in Medical Journal of Australia.

Bob was a quiet but brilliant teacher and his hospital ward rounds, lasting usually five to six hours, were a lesson to all. He had a phenomenal memory relating to patients and their illnesses, often suffered decades before. He was a quiet achiever, beloved by all the staff and venerated by his patients. He fully appreciated the role of the nursing staff and the importance of their contribution to patients’ management. He was never heard to have raised his voice in anger.

In 1967 he was elected a fellow of the RACP, the first recipient to have practised outside the metropolitan area. He was also elevated to Fellow of the RCP in 1979. He was also admitted to the elite ranks of those granted life membership of the AMA. Finally, the medal of the Order of Australia was conferred upon him for his services to medicine.

With the advent of consultant physicians in most subspecialties, Bob was able to extend his interest to other loves. For 25 years he devoted much time to the National Trust and for some time he was president. He was the Trust’s photographer, recording aspects of Townsville’s heritage on film. Some measure of the esteem in which he was held by others beside his colleagues and patients can be judged by the fact that he was chairman of convocation of James Cook University.

At 65 he retired from his post as senior consultant physician to the Townsville General Hospital, but gladly accepted the position of honorary consultant physician. His brilliant deductive and analytical mind refused a chronological age for retirement and he continued in a very busy and fulfilling private practice until 1997. Even after this retirement he attended all medical meetings and kept himself up-to-date in all aspects of patient management.

Bob never missed a North Queensland Medical Conference nor the annual meeting of the RACP.

His devastating terminal illness was relatively short, but Bob accepted its results with calmness and dignity. It was wonderful that he was able to share his last few days surrounded by a loving and extended family. He married Barbara Shaw in 1949 and they had two sons and three daughters.

Bob Douglas was a quietly spoken, unassuming gentleman, respected by all who knew him, revered by his colleagues and patients and loved by his family. He was an untiring worker with a tremendous knowledge of and dedication to the art, science and practice of medicine and with a wide knowledge of and interest in many fields.

Peter Keary

(Volume XI, page 167)

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