Lives of the fellows

Charles Ruthven Bickerton Blackburn

b.7 May 1913 d.12 April 2016
AC(2006) MB BS Sydney(1936) MD(1939) MRCP(1939) MRACP(1940) FRACP(1953) FRCP(1956) Hon MD Sydney(1991) Hon MD Newcastle

Charles Ruthven Bickerton Blackburn was an influential head of the department of medicine at the University of Sydney. He was born in Sydney. His father, Charles Bickerton Blackburn [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.48], was the foundation president of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians and chancellor of the University of Sydney. His mother was Vera Louise Blackburn née Le Patourel. His maternal grandmother, Isabelle Sarah Tempest Le Patourel née Durham, was one of the first women writers on the staff of The Sydney Morning Herald.

Blackburn was educated at Edgecliff School and King’s School, Parramatta, New South Wales, and then went to the University of Sydney, where he spent a year in the faculty of arts before studying medicine. He qualified in 1936 with first class honours and several prizes. He was a resident at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney and in 1939 obtained his MD for research on myeloma.

In 1940 he enlisted in the 2/5th Australian General Hospital (AGH). He travelled on the Queen Mary to the Middle East and helped set up the 2/5th AGH in Greece in April 1941. He was later deployed to Eritrea. In 1943, he was commanding officer of the newly-established Army Malaria Research Unit in Cairns, Australia, where he worked in close association with Neil Hamilton Fairley [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.171]. The unit carried out clinical trials on Army volunteers and developed an effective system of malaria prevention and treatment, which played a major role in the defeat of the Japanese forces in New Guinea, the nearby islands and in Burma.

After Blackburn’s demobilisation in 1946, he became an assistant physician at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. Following a year as a Rockefeller Foundation fellow at Columbia University, New York, he was appointed as director of the clinical research unit at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in 1949. He later became a senior physician, a member of the board of directors, chairman of the division of medicine and chairman of the project planning team. In 1957, he was appointed as the Bosch professor and head of the department of medicine.

His own research focused on liver disease. He published 190 articles in scientific journals, including a 2004 follow-up of his early wartime malaria research (‘Short report: the activity of pamaquine, an 8-aminoquinoline drug, against sporozoite-induced infections of Plasmodium vivax [New Guinea strains]’ Am J Trop Med Hyg 2004 Aug;71[2]:187-9).

At the University of Sydney he successfully revitalised the department of medicine, developing academic departments in each of the teaching hospitals and encouraging a strong research-oriented academic group on campus. By the time he retired in December 1978 there were six professors and 10 other full-time members of the academic staff, as well as professorial units in all the teaching hospitals. Overall, he had an enormous influence on generations of doctors, many of whom became leading figures in medicine in Australia and overseas.

In 1979 Blackburn was awarded the prestigious Neil Hamilton Fairley medal by the Royal Australasian College of Physicians. In 2006 he was made a Companion of the Order of Australia.

In 1940 he married Eleanor (Nell) Freeman. They had two daughters, Susan Ann and Sandra Marjorie. Following his first wife’s death, in 1968 he married Ann Janet Woolcock, professor of respiratory medicine at the University of Sydney, and a leading asthma researcher. They had two sons, Charles Simon and Angus Thomas. Ruthven Blackburn died just before his 103rd birthday and was survived by his daughter Sandra, his two sons, seven grandchildren and three great grandchildren.

RCP editor

[The Royal Australasian College of Physician The College Newsletter August 1979, Volume 11, No.2; The Sydney Morning Herald 23 May 2016 www.smh.com.au/national/professor-charles-blackburn--a-life-spent-in-service-of-medicine-and-his-country-20160523-gp1q6v.html – accessed 15 September 2018; The University of Sydney – The University of Sydney School of Medicine Online Museum Blackburn, Charles Ruthven Bickerton https://sydney.edu.au/medicine/museum/mwmuseum/index.php/Blackburn,_Charles_Ruthven_Bickerton – accessed 14 September 2018]

(Volume XII, page web)

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