Lives of the fellows

George Douglas (Sir) Robb

b.29 April 1899 d.28 April 1974
CMG(1956) Kt(1960) BSc MB ChB Otago(1922) MRCS LRCP(1925) MDOtago(1929) FRACS(1930) ChM(1938) FRS NZ(1961) FRCP(1966) Hon FACS(1959) Hon LLD Belf(1962) Hon LLD Auckland(1969)

Douglas Robb was born in Auckland, New Zealand, and despite world-wide travel and periods of residence abroad, remained always an Aucklander and a New Zealander. His father, John Robb - a timber merchant - was born in Glasgow in 1856, but emigrated to Australia where, in Melbourne in 1894, he married Agnes Rough - also a Glaswegian. They arrived in New Zealand in 1897, and it was from this sound Scottish background with its emphasis on religion and education, that Douglas Robb acquired so many of his very individualistic characteristics. He was educated at Auckland Grammar School, leaving there with the top University Scholarship for Otago University, where, taking a Science degree en route he qualified in the early ’twenties. This was followed by five years postgraduate study in England culminating in the FRCS (Eng.).

Robb then returned to New Zealand and for the rest of his active life practised as a consulting surgeon in Auckland on the staff of the Auckland General Hospital and later, Green Lane Hospital. Essentially a general surgeon, at the latter institution he became the pioneer of a cardiothoracic centre, which has developed a world-wide reputation. He was a skilled and patient surgeon, who paid great attention to detail - as was to be expected from one who was a superb anatomist. At the same time his humanitarian characteristics made him deeply trusted by his patients. As a trainer of juniors, he was quite exceptional -no amount of time or trouble was too much for him to expend on them, and he had that endearing quality of continuing interest in their careers long after they had left his aegis.

He became an inveterate traveller, spreading the gospel of British surgery to an incredible number of countries in Africa, the Middle East and the Far East. He was one of the first foreign surgeons to visit Peking and study medicine in Red China; his Sims Travelling Professorship (1960), which took in a number of countries from South Africa to Ethiopia on his way to the UK, was an outstanding success, and he was well and personally known in Australia and America. Even after retirement he voluntarily carried out a lengthy period of general medical and surgical practice in Honiara in the Solomon Islands. These far-flung and varied travels were, in a quiet, unobtrusive and perfectly natural way - in the Scottish tradition - evangelistic missions. His fundamental belief in both his religion and his profession and in the value of education, both medical and general, made him a great "ambassador". His ability to mix was reinforced by his tolerance and obvious desire to understand his fellows, and his quiet scrutiny and impish humour made him not only accepted but popular wherever he went. His spoken words were fluent, forceful and more often than not controversially stimulating. This asset was abundantly obvious in some of the important posts he held in later life in both the medical and educational spheres. He was President of the British Medical Association (1961/62); Chancellor of Auckland University (1961-68); Chairman of the Medical Council of New Zealand (the equivalent of the GMC) 1968-72, of which he had previously been a member for some 27 years; and Founder and Vice-Chairman of the Auckland Medical Research Foundation (1956-1974). His interest in that prototype of nationalised medical services was deep and comprehensive, and though in this sphere he was often called a "rebel", he could be much more accurately termed a "liberal" in the true and non-political sense of the word. This particular interest was recorded in two of his many publications: Medicine and Health in New Zealand (1940) and Health Reform in New Zealand (1949).

Amongst his many other writings one finds University Development in N.Z. (1957) and his autobiography Medical Odyssey (1967).

To Douglas Robb, his home and his family were of prime importance, and he was never in any doubt that the blessings life had conferred upon him were his wife and children. He married (in 1935) Helen Seabrook, the highly intelligent, vivacious daughter of a well-known journalist. She was a constant and potent helpmeet to him in all his many activities and a tower of strength during his strenuous world-wide visitations. To both of them their children were a continuing joy, as was their partial retirement, when Douglas was able, in ideal company, to enjoy those things for which he had not had much time during his professional life - the country and especially trees, fishing and the sailing of small boats - and always, reading.

Douglas Robb was a courageous man, for he was at one time not physically well; he was a fine surgeon, a trained educationalist, a cogent writer and speaker, an insatiable traveller with a positive approach to anything new, a man who had his priorities right, whose faith was complete, in his church, his family, his fellow men and himself - a big man in stature and in heart.

Lord Porritt

[, 1974, 2, 390; Lancet, 1974, 1, 881]

(Volume VI, page 391)

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