Lives of the fellows

Harold Robert Elphick

b.9 April 1917 d.12 December 2005
MB BS Melb(1940) MRCP(1955) FRACP(1965) FRCP(1974)

Dr Harold Robert (Bob) Elphick died in Adelaide aged 88 years. He was born at King Edward Memorial Hospital in Subiaco, Western Australia, during WWI, the third of three sons of Clarence Theodore (an accountant) and Margaret Ellen (nee Johnson).

His father died of “galloping consumption” in Cairo on the day before the Armistice when Bob was only 18 months old. He was a boarder at Guildford Grammar School from the age of 12 on a Legacy Scholarship. He studied medicine in Melbourne, well before there was a medical school in Western Australia, graduating in 1940.

He then returned to Perth, worked as a resident in Royal Perth Hospital and later spent two years as Deputy Superintendent at Fremantle Hospital until enlisting in the army. He examined new recruits until he was seconded to the Northam Army Hospital to care for returned soldiers with tuberculosis. After Northam was closed he moved to Hollywood with his troops, and later spent some months in Heidelberg Military Hospital in Victoria working with Sir Harry Wunderly.

Bob came from a generation of physicians who initially practiced medicine without antibiotics. In an interview in 1997, Bob recalled his sister-in-law Nancy telling him about penicillin. She said “Bobby, they’ve discovered something in mouldy cheese that cures disease” and he had replied “Nancy that’s bullshit”. He was less sceptical when streptomycin arrived in 1947.

In 1946 after he was demobilized, Bob was persuaded by Dr Linley Henzell to work at Wooroloo Sanatorium as Deputy Superintendent and, after six months, as Superintendent where in December 1947 he successfully administered what was possibly Western Australia’s first dose of streptomycin and “cured” a young nurse of “galloping consumption”.

From his early days at Wooroloo Bob was involved in rehabilitation and sheltered work for patients disabled by tuberculosis. He set up the Linley Valley Colony with doctors Linley Henzell, Don Letham, Dick Porter and Alan King. This was the first sheltered workshop in the state. When it moved to new premises in Perth and provided sheltered work for the disabled, Bob continued actively to support its activities by being a member of the Board of Westcare and Chairman of its Tuberculosis Advisory Committee almost until his retirement to Adelaide in 2004.

In 1958 when the Perth Chest Hospital, now known as the Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital (SCGH), was opened, Bob became its first Superintendent/Physician bringing with him the administrative skills he had learned during his years in the army and his clinical skills in treating tuberculosis. His style of administration was to lead by example.

Before the opening of SCGH in 1958, Bob had predicted the decline of tuberculosis and sat and passed his membership of the RACP thereby formalizing his right to call himself a specialist respiratory physician. Bob observed the “cross of death” when mortality rates for tuberculosis were surpassed by mortality rates for lung cancer. He was the Foundation President of the Western Australian branch of the Australian Council on Smoking and Health, the organisation which was responsible for introducing the first parliamentary bill to prohibit the advertising of tobacco products.

Under Bob’s leadership SCGH became a referral centre for all chest diseases in the state, especially mining-related diseases, even though general physicians initially resented this shift. Despite the protest of some general physicians, Bob asserted the qualification of TB physicians to call themselves respiratory physicians.

In 1968, with a decline in the incidence of TB in the State, the hospital diversified into caring for general patients and Bob determined that he could best serve the hospital as a superintendent and withdrew from clinical duties. Within a short period he revised this decision and, after consultation with the hospital’s Board Chairman, Sir Hector Stewart, he relinquished his administrative position and returned to clinical duties.

At SCGH he recruited a team of physicians to ensure that the best standards of care were provided. John Smythe, Janet Elder, Dick Adams and Bill Smith joined Bob and these appointments resulted in the hospital rapidly earning a reputation for excellence of care. Bob continued to work as a chest physician and head of the Department of Respiratory Medicine until 1977 when he retired into private practice, but then also continued as a locum physician to allow his successor (Bill Musk) to remain overseas for an additional year of postgraduate training.

Much of his referral base went with him into private practice but when inpatient care and investigation was required his (mostly elderly) patients were referred into his old unit at SCGH thereby ensuring that they continued to receive the best care that he perceived he could organize for them.

Bob continued in busy private practice in Ord Street, West Perth for another ten years or so and even when he had ultimately retired from this he continued to see his old patients at their homes until not long before he died. Patients looked forward to these visits and always felt better after Bob had sat with them.

Bob Elphick was an excellent teacher. He was always accessible to students and junior staff. He lived in a house on campus where he was accessible at all times. He would always come in if asked and junior staff would take X-rays over to him to look at and discuss, day or night. He also provided clinical tutorials, out of hours, for physician trainees at a time when there were no training programs in Perth and aspiring College membership candidates had to organize their own tutorials.

Bob Elphick had a long and productive life as a great physician and left a lasting legacy of excellence in all aspects of the practice of medicine.

A W Musk
C Fitzgerald

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

(Volume XII, page web)

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