Lives of the fellows

John James Billings

b.5 March 1918 d.1 April 2007
AM KCSG MB BS Melb(1941) MD(1946) MRACP(1946) MRCP(1947) FRACP(1956) FRCP(1966)

John Billings, son of Robert Billings, an accountant, and Elizabeth (née Cummins), was born in Melbourne. He and his wife, Dr Evelyn Billings, paediatrician (née Thomas, MB BS Melbourne 1943), who married in 1943, achieved fame in later years working in partnership on the problem of birth control by natural methods.

He was one of the founding members of the Australian Association of Neurologists. A group of doctors gathered under the chairmanship of Professor Sydney Sunderland in the Anatomy School at University of Melbourne in 1951 to form the Association and John served as Treasurer from 1957 to 1963.

John was Dux of Xavier College, Kew, in 1935 and then entered the Medical School of University of Melbourne where his contribution to academic and sporting life was outstanding. He graduated MB BS with high honours in 1941; and there followed a period as resident medical officer at St Vincent’s Hospital, Melbourne. In 1943 he enlisted in the AIF for service in New Guinea. His military service included working in the Pulmonary Diseases Hospital in Bonegilla, Victoria, tending repatriated former prisoners-of-war and finally serving in the Repatriation Hospital, Heidelberg. He reached the rank of Captain, AAMC. John published on amoebiasis in Papua New Guinea and also on viral encephalitis.

During 1946 he obtained both his MRACP and his MD, both by examination. In October 1946 he was demobilised and obtained a Nuffield Fellowship to train in neurology for two years at the National Hospital, Queen Square, London. During that period he obtained his MRCP (London). During his war service John had served under Dr Jack Hayden, who had considerable interest in neurological medicine, and this mentorship probably contributed to John’s choice of neurology as a specialty.

John Billings returned to St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne in 1948. He also served as assistant to Jack Hayden (by now a Professor) in the latter’s private practice, especially in his Hypertension Clinic. The task of convincing hospital administrators and colleagues of the importance of neurology as a separate discipline was at times almost overwhelming, however John tackled the task with his usual vigour and persistence. In 1950 he obtained his own clinical unit complete with inpatient beds and outpatient clinic.

He was Head of the Department of Neurology at St Vincent’s until he retired in 1983. He served on the Medical Advisory Council of St Vincent’s Hospital for a decade, and he was Associate Dean (Clinical) of its clinical school from 1973 to 1983. In addition he was appointed neurological consultant to the Eye and Ear Hospital Melbourne, and also to the Peter McCallum Cancer Hospital and the Infectious Diseases Hospital, Fairfield. He served on the Council of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, from 1952 to 1970, and represented the College on the NHMRC, for a period chairing many of its committees. This very significant contribution was recognized by the establishment of the John Billings Scholarship.

As a clinician John had a compendious knowledge of both general medicine and of clinical neurology. He built a reputation for his consultative skills and his problem solving in this area. His reputation as a clinical teacher was legendary; both undergraduates and those seeking postgraduate achievement sought his help and his Saturday morning ward rounds quickly became a “must attend” feature of medical studies at St Vincent’s Hospital.

He was very supportive of juniors returning from overseas, encouraging both clinical and research activities. In later years he provided great support at meetings of both the Australian Association of Neurologists and at international meetings such as the Asian and Oceanian Congress of Neurology held in Melbourne in 1965. As a senior colleague he was a delight; his warm personality and slightly shy manner combined to put one at ease immediately. His willing allocation of responsibility to junior colleagues was impeccable.

In later years his interest in natural methods of birth control, working with his wife Dr Lyn Billings, took up a large proportion of his time, and international travel to Third World countries effected his availability as a clinical neurologist. Their internationally popular book The Billings Method: controlling fertility without drugs or devices has achieved sales of over a million copies since published in 1980. Both he and Lyn were appointed to the Pontifical Academy for life and he was awarded a Papal Knighthood. John and Lyn had nine children, four of whom became teachers and three of whom worked in the health professions. His cousins, Kathleen, Brian, and Robert Galbally (FRACP) and John Gurry, were all Melbourne University medical graduates.

John retired from clinical neurology in 1983. He died after a protracted illness in April 2007 in Melbourne. He will be long remembered by all who knew and worked with him, not only for his wisdom and knowledge, but especially for his warm, kindly personality. His pioneering contributions to the establishment of the clinical specialty of neurology in Australia are of great historical significance.

P Bladin

[Reproduced, with permission, from the Royal Australasian College of Physicians’ College Roll]

(Volume XII, page web)

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