Lives of the fellows

Roger Robinson

b.17 May 1932 d.12 October 2003
MA DPhil Oxon(1958) BM BCh(1959) MRCP(1963) DCH(1964) FRCP(1975) PhD Aberdeen

Roger Robinson had two truly remarkable careers - as the first professor of paediatrics at Guy's and, after he retired, as an expert on the Scottish philosopher and poet, James Beattie. He went up to Balliol, Oxford, as a scholar reading physiology. Not only did he get a first, but, as captain of boats, he also successfully rowed in a champion college VIII. After training as medical clinical scholar at the Radcliffe Infirmary, he showed an early interest in neurology, taking an SHO post at the National Hospital, Queen Square. He then progressed over ten years from house physician to senior lecturer at the department of child health at the Hammersmith Hospital.

During this time he spent a year as a fellow in neurology at Harvard, followed by a visiting lectureship at the University of Kentucky with David Clark, the doyen of American adult and child neurology. He developed a system of gestational age assessment of the premature infant, based on the acquisition of primary reflexes. He co-authored an authorative text on neonatology.

After going to Guy's as consultant paediatrician, he was within two years the director with special responsibility for students. Two years thereafter, he was the obvious choice as first holder of the newly founded chair of paediatrics at Guy's.

His publications thereafter were few but widely influential. Interested in language development, he was honorary consultant at Moor House School, for children with specific language disorders. He published his analysis of his experience there in Developmental Medicine in Child Neurology in 1991. He showed that language disorders have various causes, often multiple in an individual.

One of his particular fortes was the analysis and appraisal of the work of others. At the age of 37 he was appointed senior editor of the Archives of Disease in Childhood - a post he held for 13 years. On retirement he was welcomed by the BMJ as associate editor, where he chaired the 'hanging committee' until his death.

The intellectual rigor he applied to these activities was the hallmark of his clinical work and teaching. He taught and practiced evidence-based medicine before that term was invented. His opinion was widely sort by his peers. He brought the same strengths to his teaching, and generations of undergraduates and post-graduates were grateful for his ability to bring order to a mass of apparently inchoate material.

All this might be taken to imply that he personified the remote, cold intellectual approach. Nothing could be further from the truth. His professional priorities were patients and parents, first and always. After a clinic he would spend at least the same length of time dictating letters and personally contacting by phone all those concerned with his impressions and conclusions. He set and maintained the highest clinical standards, not only in general paediatrics but also in paediatric neurology - a task of which few are capable. He cared deeply about the welfare and development of students, going to endless lengths to resolve their problems. He brought to all these interpersonal activities a warmth, compassion and sense of humour which belied his eminence. Although he never gossiped, his advice on personal matters was regularly sought and valued by colleagues and staff. He was the antithesis of the 'absent professor': over 30 years he visited Hong Kong and the West Bank with the British Council and spent just four weeks at Dunedin, New Zealand as visiting professor.

Thus he combined a full clinical load with his professional, teaching and editorial responsibilities. Administration was his least favourite occupation, despite which he set up the children's hospital within Guy's main campus. It would be true to say that he did not find the approach of the new business management and accounting styles always in sympathy with his priorities and took the opportunity for early retirement at the age of 59.

Whereupon he embarked on his second career. A keen walker with his wife Jane, they had long loved the Lake District, and hence the Lakeland poets, on whom the poet and philosopher of the Scottish Enlightenment, James Beattie, had been a defining influence. Beattie he felt had been neglected, so he set about putting that right, by enrolling as a PhD student at Aberdeen University, which held a collection of Beattie's papers. Roger's meticulous research unearthed a further 50 or so unpublished poems. He defended his thesis at his old college Balliol. It was accepted without a single textual emendation. He became an honorary fellow of the department of English at that University and an acknowledged international authority on his subject. He attended conferences by invitation and to them brought new standards of evidential proof and presentation. He had just finished correcting the proofs of a four volume collection of Beattie's letters, to be published this year, when he was overtaken by prostate cancer. His next project was to have published what would have been the definitive edition of Beattie's poems.

He realised the end was near and prior to surgery took pains to say goodbye to all his friends and colleagues. The strength and dignity with which he undertook this final task was to many little short of unnerving. In this, as in so much else, he was an exemplary model.

Richard Robinson

[gkt gazette Dec 2003; The Independent 31 Oct 2003; The Guardian 28 Oct 2003; Brit.med.J., 327,2003,992]

(Volume XI, page 487)

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