Lives of the fellows

Vernon Leslie Collins

b.10 November 1909 d.24 March 1978
CBE(1973) MB BS Melb(1933) MD(1936) MRCP(1940) DCH Lond(1940) FRACP(1962) FRCP(1968)

It is relatively easy to chronicle a man’s achievements, but difficult to write about him as a person. Most people only know a man by the way he communicates with them in personal relationships. Vernon Collins was not an easy man to know; he had a natural reserve and dignity and did not readily communicate his feelings. A man’s character is often revealed when he is faced with adversity: in later life Vernon Collins was stricken with a disabling illness which made it difficult for him to carry on his job but, though often under great stress, it never occurred to him to quit. He had great courage, persistence and purpose and never complained about his illness, which progressively restricted his bodily movements and speech but did not impair his mind. He learned how to live with his crippling disorder and continued to retain his interest in people, and in all aspects of medical, social and political life.

‘Vern’, as he was known to his friends, was bom at Nhill, Victoria, Australia, to John and Susan Collins. His father was a farmer and his mother was the daughter of John Hann, also a farmer. He was educated at Horsham High School and the University of Melbourne, where he graduated in 1933. In 1934 he served as junior resident medical officer at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, being promoted senior medical officer in 1935. He then became resident medical officer and registrar at the Children’s Hospital, Melbourne, where he was appointed medical superintendent in 1937.

At the beginning of the second world war he came to England, serving as physician and gastroenterologist at the North Middlesex Hospital and he was also responsible, under the EMS, for organizing the blood transfusion service for the area. In 1940 he obtained his membership of the College and his DCH. This was a momentous year for Vernon Collins, for apart from academic achievements he married Josephine O’Shea and began what was to be a long and happy married life throughout which he was constantly inspired, encouraged and supported by his wife. They had two sons of whom they were justifiably proud.

He returned to Australia in 1945 and was appointed honorary physician to outpatients at the Children’s Hospital, Melbourne; becoming honorary physician to inpatients in 1948. In 1949 he was appointed as medical director and physician to the Hospital, a post which he held until 1959. This was the first full time appointment of a medical director to a teaching hospital in Melbourne. When making the appointment the committee of management realized that many changes were needed to meet the demands of the community and keep abreast of medical advances overseas, and this phase of Vernon Collins’s career was probably the most important in his professional life. It was certainly one of the utmost significance for the hospital which he was to serve so loyally and diligently. To implement changes in a very old, totally inadequate Victorian-style hospital was a formidable task, and only made possible by a man who had a broad perspective and understanding of the changes necessary in hospital administration, policy and staffing, and the will to carry them out. Opposition was inevitable but his foresight, equanimity and purpose, gradually influenced and drew support from the majority. He was directly responsible, in 1953, for the introduction of salaried sessional staff, thus creating the necessary openings for many young people. He was instrumental in introducing unrestricted visiting of children by their parents; personal interviewing of parents on the death of their child; concern for the underprivileged, and respect for the dignity of child and parents whatever their social status. He was a great administrator and an excellent teacher, but it was this personal concern and sensitivity for the sick child and his, or her, family which made him a good and loved physician. After his appointment to the chair of paediatrics at the University of Melbourne, in 1959, he continued to serve the hospital as a member of the senior medical staff.

In addition to his duties at the University, he remained active in the promotion of modem medicine. He was involved in the planning of a new hospital at Parkville; the Tweddle Baby Hospital and the School of Infant Welfare and Mothercraft. He had a strong faith in the value of social education and made a notable contribution to the department of social studies at the University; for a period of six months in 1964 he was acting head of this department. Later, as chairman of the board of social studies, he played a considerable part in establishing social studies as a four-year university course.

Vernon Collins was a physician moulded on the Oslerian tradition, and the last phase of his career was characterized by the development of sound, broad training in clinical paediatrics for undergraduates: a training which always stressed the value of compassion, courtesy and humanity, when caring for patients.

He spent his last days in the home he loved, in the garden he had created, with his books and his music. He was not afraid of death, only fearful that he might be obliged to go into hospital before the end. Thanks to the superb nursing skill and devotion of his wife, his fears proved groundless.

Sir Gordon Wolstenholme
Valérie Luniewska

[Aust. Paediatr. J., 1978, 14, 128-130; 1974, 10, 255-257]

(Volume VII, page 111)

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