Lives of the fellows

Ronald Albert Barker

b.16 February 1922 d.15 September 2014
CBE(1986) MB ChB Otago(1946) MRACP(1949) MRCP(1952) FRACP(1965) FRCP(1979)

Ron Barker was a geriatrician in Auckland, New Zealand, and then director general of health at the Ministry of Health. He was a man of many talents, possessed with a great intellect and an ability to look beyond conventional borders. He was always an inspiration to his medical peers and juniors.

He was born in Auckland, the youngest son of Annabel and George William Barker, an engineer. He attended Mount Albert Grammar School in Auckland. His parents were not well off, but Ron won a Rawling scholarship, which not only meant that he could stay two extra years at secondary school but also enabled his older brother George to continue there as well. George was later to assist Ron with his tertiary education and the two brothers remained very close throughout their lives. In 2005 Ron was inducted into the Mount Albert Grammar School hall of distinction, his name alongside other outstanding old boys.

After graduating from Otago Medical School, Ron was a house physician and then a registrar at Auckland Hospital from 1948 to 1951, before setting up in general practice in Pukekohe, south Auckland. During this time he met and married Thelma Frances Nicholson (known as ‘Nicky’), and in late 1951 they went to live and work in the UK. In London he worked as a house physician and registrar at Hammersmith Hospital, where he gained his membership of the Royal College of Physicians.

On his return to New Zealand in 1952 Ron continued to work as a GP in Auckland until 1959, when he was appointed as a geriatric physician and medical superintendent of Cornwall Hospital in Auckland. This was a large hospital built in the Second Word War for wounded American soldiers serving in the Pacific. After the war Cornwall Hospital became a long-term sanctuary and rehabilitation centre for frail and sick older people, and for severely disabled younger patients. It was due to his work in this hospital that Ron, with his colleague James Newman, came to be regarded as one of the ‘fathers of geriatric medicine’ in New Zealand.

Ron’s vision and example inspired younger doctors to train in the UK and to come back to New Zealand to set up modern geriatric units based in the district hospitals. During his time at Cornwall Hospital Ron travelled to the UK to learn more about modern geriatric care. His UK colleagues subsequently reported that not only were they impressed by his passion and ideas, but also that he managed to travel with only a very small suitcase. He was strongly involved in the 1960s in encouraging and helping to set up community residential care as an alternative to long-term care at Cornwall Hospital. He was also instrumental in transferring rehabilitative care of older people back to base hospital sites following closure of the isolated Cornwall Hospital.

From 1974 and during the last 14 years of his working life, Ron worked first as deputy director general of health in Wellington and then as director general of health. In this latter post he continued his vigorous advocacy of geriatric medicine. One geriatrician remembers an astonished Auckland hospital superintendent-in-chief receiving a directive from Ron to set up a day hospital for older people accompanied by government funding for 20 staff! After leaving his director general post, he and Nicky retired back to Auckland, where they lived adjacent to his daughter Sue and her husband John.

Ron was highly regarded by his colleagues, especially those he mentored in geriatric medicine and in the Ministry of Health. Though a quiet and humble man, he was very proud to be awarded a CBE for services to medicine, and to receive this from the Queen in 1986.

Ron was actively involved with the Freemasons and enjoyed gardening and home decoration. He also found time to serve on local school committees. After he retired he remained active in community organisations and local affairs. He was a life member of Age Concern, Probus, the Government Superannuitants Association and the New Zealand Association of Gerontology. However, he stopped these activities to care for Nicky once she developed motor neurone disease. She died in 2003.

Ron died aged 92, one of the longest survivors of a quadruple coronary bypass, performed when he was 64 years old. In the last year of his life he was admitted to a geriatric ward at North Shore Hospital. It was a nice coincidence that this was a ward in which he worked in 1974 as the hospital’s first geriatrician following the closure of the old Cornwall Hospital. He is said to have been pleased and impressed with the quality of care that he received. For their part staff on the ward knew exactly who he was and what his contribution to geriatric medicine had been. Ron was survived by his two daughters, Alison and Sue, two grandchildren and one great grandchild.

Jonathan Baskett

(Volume XII, page web)

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