Lives of the fellows

Richard Harold Charles Rischbieth

b.4 August 1927 d.26 April 2007
MB BS Adelaide(1950) MRCP Edin(1955) MRCP(1955) MRACP(1958) FRCP(1976) FRCP Edin(1971) FRACP(1978)

Dick Rischbieth was a much-loved Australian neurologist who played an important part in establishing neurology at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Adelaide.

He was born in Adelaide, a member of a well-known medical family; his father, Harold Rischbieth, was a consultant surgeon and his elder brother, Henry George, was a paediatrician. Dick was educated at St Peter’s Collegiate School, for which he retained a lifelong affection. He went on to study medicine at the University of Adelaide.

The Adelaide medical school had opened in 1885, with the aim of providing the youth of the colony with a basic medical education that would be acceptable in the UK. It was assumed that Adelaide medical graduates who wanted postgraduate medical education or specialist training would go overseas. Seventy years later, ambitious young South Australians usually still did this, and Dick Rischbieth went to London to qualify as a physician. After obtaining postgraduate qualifications, he took an appointment as house physician at the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases in Queen Square. Experience at this famous hospital gave him an excellent training in neurology, and a lifelong interest in the clinical neurosciences. He also worked briefly in a neurosurgical unit; this experience later made him a very valuable colleague for hard-pressed neurosurgeons, who could rely on Dick to assess their patients if unable to do so themselves.

After his formative years in England, Dick returned to Adelaide and in 1958 he was appointed as senior neurological registrar at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, Adelaide’s oldest teaching hospital. In the following year, he accepted a consultant appointment at a new public hospital, the Queen Elizabeth Hospital. In this innovative establishment he developed a neurological department which has grown and diversified ever since.

The Queen Elizabeth Hospital had been opened in 1954 to serve Adelaide’s western suburbs. It rapidly became a modern university hospital, recruiting medical men and women eager to give patient care in accordance with the best contemporary thinking. It was a young hospital, with mostly young staff; the intellectual atmosphere was exhilarating, and Dick’s abilities ripened in this environment. As a consultant neurologist he became respected for his sound and humane opinions; he participated especially well in interdisciplinary groups, being a foundation member of the hospital’s pain clinic, one of the first in Australia, and he promoted the care of stroke victims in collaboration with vascular surgeons. He was innovative in the management of epilepsy: he encouraged neurosurgeons to perform cerebral ablations in carefully selected cases, and was a pioneer in Adelaide in promoting the safe use of the new drugs carbamazepine and valproate.

As the years passed, he encouraged a number of trainee physicians to embark on neurological careers, supervising their training for the Royal Australasian College of Physicians; thanks to Dick and his contemporaries in other centres, Australia can now offer a full postgraduate education in neurology. He was much liked by his pupils, to whom he gave wise counsel. Some of his pupils developed important research interests; Dick himself published a number of papers, including a significant study of the geographic epidemiology of multiple sclerosis. When he retired in 1992, his neurological service had a very high reputation, especially in supporting patients with chronic neurological disabilities.

After his retirement, Dick engaged in an astonishing range of activities: church affairs, school affairs, local history, fishing and bird watching. All benefited from his energy and his idealism. Sometimes his commitments conflicted, and he was not invariably punctual at his meetings; when he died, one of his admirers declared that Dick had gone to another meeting. His enthusiasm for natural history was honoured after his death, when a large and handsome robber fly was named after him; it had been recently discovered on Kangaroo Island, where he and his family often holidayed.

Throughout his life Dick was above all a family man: his very happy marriage to Judy (née Wood) and his deep affection for their four children were the delight of his many friends. All his children have done well in professional careers (law, medicine and physiotherapy) and Dick followed their achievements with warm interest. At the end of his life, family happenings gave him a series of goals in his courageous struggle against an unrelenting illness.

Donald Simpson

(Volume XII, page web)

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