Lives of the fellows

William Robert Fitzgerald Collis

b.16 February 1900 d.27 May 1975
BA Cantab(1922) MRCS LRCP(1924) MB BChir(1925) MD(1929) DPH Dub(1929) MRCP(1926) FRCP(1934) MRCPI(1934) FRCPI(1937)

Robert Collis was born in Killiney, Co. Dublin, the third son of William Stewart Collis, solicitor, of Kilmore, Killiney. His mother, Edith Barton was the daughter of John Barton, MD of Dublin, Surgeon to the Adelaide Hospital, Dublin, and President of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. His grandfather, Maurice Henry Collis was Surgeon to the Meath Hospital, Dublin. His two brothers, Maurice and John, were both well known writers.

Collis was educated at Aravon School, Bray, Co. Wicklow, and at Rugby School. He went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, and spent some of his undergraduate terms at Yale. He then entered King’s College Hospital Medical School.

After qualifying he was house physician at King’s and later at Great Ormond Street under Still and Sheldon. He became MRCP and won a Rockefeller Fellowship which enabled him to work with Edward Park at the Harriet Lane Children’s Department of the Johns Hopkins Hospital.

He returned to Great Ormond Street as Research Fellow and made an important contribution to the aetiology of erythema nodosum.

In 1932 he came back to Dublin to take over the practice and the Fitzwilliam Square house of Brian Crichton, a successful children’s specialist who was retiring. Appointments as paediatrician to the National Children’s and the Rotunda Hospitals followed, and for the next 25 years he practised and taught paediatrics in Dublin. But he had many other interests — the most remarkable was his discovery and treatment of Christy Brown, the athetotic writer, whose autobiography My Left Foot achieved world fame. He was always interested in ‘social medicine’ (long before it achieved capital letters or Chairs), and his successful play Marrowbone Lane (1943) — named for a notorious Dublin slum — was the inspiration of much valuable medico-social work in Ireland. A Cadet in the Irish Guards at the end of the first world war, the end of the second found him in the Red Cross active at the relief of Belsen. He wrote two books about his experiences, Straight On (1947) and The Ultimate Value (1951).

In 1957, for personal reasons, he decided to leave Dublin. He was offered and accepted the post of Director of the Paediatric Department newly established at the Ibadan University College Hospital. Later he transferred to the University of Lagos as the first Professor of Paediatrics and Director of the Institute of Child Health. His last appointment in Nigeria was Professor and Clinical Dean of Ahmadu Bello University in the Northern Region. Two books record these years - A Doctor's Nigeria (1960) and Nigeria in Conflict (1970).

He retired from Africa in 1971 and settled down at his hill farm in County Wicklow.

Bob Collis was a medical buccaneer with the traditional heart of gold. He had five hobbies — people, paediatrics, writing, horses and Rugby football. He captained Rugby School, won a Cambridge Blue and played for Ireland. He rode many horses fearlessly and dangerously, hunting, riding point-to-point and playing polo in three Continents. Writing came easily, some said too easily, to Collis. As well as the works mentioned above he wrote two autobiographies, The Silver Fleece (1936) and To be a Pilgrim (1975). They tell all, or almost all, about him and great names drop from the pages. He wrote three textbooks of paediatrics but his greatest service to sick children was his work in Africa. His many friendships crossed all barriers - national and racial, social and educational. He had a multitude of good ideas, and great energy and some success in persuading other people to pursue them.

In 1929 he married Phyllis, daughter of John Heron of Fowey, Cornwall. They had two sons, one of whom graduated in medicine at Dublin University. When this marriage was dissolved he married Johanna Hogerzeil, daughter of Hendrik Hogerzeil, a lawyer of Oosterbeek, Holland. She was a law graduate who later qualified in medicine at King’s College Medical School. They had two sons.

In the fifty years from the Irish ‘rebellion’ of 1916 until the Nigerian civil war of 1966 Collis saw much violent action. He was in Ghana at the fall of Nkrumah and in Zanzibar just after the slaughter of the Arabs in 1971. His death was in keeping with his life, for he died following a fall from a horse that he was schooling alone in the hills above his home.

DM Mitchell

[Brit.med.J., 1975, 2, 621; Times, 31 May 1975]

(Volume VI, page 108)

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