Last Update: 04/06/2014 14:27
Alastair Robson - the pioneer neurosurgeon in Canberra - was
born in Sydney in 1926 and went to Shore School in north Sydney
where his father was Headmaster. He rowed in the Shore VIII, and
after leaving school he coached the senior crew. It was at Shore
that he met his future wife, Anne who became the mainstay of the
developing family and was the major force behind Alastair's
He was a man of great integrity with great devotion to his
family and absolute dedication to his patients and the craft of
He went to the Sydney University where he completed his medical
education and after some years in General practice in the 1950s
went to England, obtaining his Fellowship in general surgery,
developing an interest in Neurosurgery and learning wisdom from Sir
Wylie McKissock, at the Atkinson Morley Neurosurgical Unit.
He initially commenced practice as a general surgeon in 1961 in
Bathurst and then moved to Canberra shortly after that and became
the first full time neurosurgeon in Canberra.
Although he would never admit it, Alastair was ahead of his time
in neurosurgery. He took a keen interest in spinal surgery which
most other neurosurgeons steered clear of. In particular spinal
fusion and instrumentation of the spine became his new interest and
a specialty that he went on to teach others who would follow
He used to regularly visit Ralph Cloward, a well-known
pioneering Neuro-spinal surgeon in Hawaii and brought home new
techniques. He became a close friend of Ralph and was a founding
member of the Posterior Lumbar Interbody Fusion Society which later
became the Spine Society.
His interests then extended into making his own instruments and
designing or modifying instruments to suit his needs. Being
dissatisfied with the equipment available at the hospitals he
bought his own set of spinal instruments and carried them from
hospital to hospital.
When he found that his uninsured patients were not being served
adequately in Canberra he took it upon himself to start operating
at the Goulburn Base Hospital - an hour's drive away where he would
do a weekly list carrying his instruments all the way and driving
back late in the evening.
He introduced pedicle screw fixation for lumbar fusions by
working with Dr Art Steffe, a pioneering surgeon in the USA and
then bringing his techniques and instruments to Canberra. He also
became a close friend of Dr Steffe who he visited many times and
who visited Canberra to stay with Alastair.
Alastair was always very kind to his patients. He often knew the
intricate details of their social and family situations and some of
them became his close friends as well. This personal touch and the
old school approach of "practitioner to the whole patient, not just
their particular body part", is something that is perhaps missing
in modern medicine.
Alastair was a man of varied interests. He had a wonderful
collection of artworks, sculptures, paintings and one of the
largest collections of Japanese wood cut prints.
Whatever he did he carried out with full dedication and passion
to its ultimate perfection. Fishing was no exception to this. He
went on regular fishing trips and made his own flies, collecting
pieces of lead fallen on the road to make into sinkers.
He often visited the Thredbo River, Lake Eucumbene and Lake
Jindabyne and when he retired, travelled all the way to Cape York
Peninsula for fishing holidays. He was meticulous whether it was
with his surgical techniques or his collection of flies, Bonsai
plants or his art works.
He never missed his Sunday tennis with his friends and in the
winter season skiing in the snowfields near Canberra.
He was an avid reader of books and collector of historic rare
books as well.
He was a life member of the AMA, was actively involved in the
Australian Association of Surgeons, he was consultant surgeon to
the Snowy Mountains Scheme and served for many years on the Medical
Board of the ACT, finally becoming its chairman.
He was a council member of the Medical Defence Union for many
years, travelling every month to Sydney for the meetings.
I owe a great personal debt to Alastair. It was he who
encouraged me to stay on in Canberra and commence practice as a
neurosurgeon, having spent a year as his registrar in The Canberra
Hospital. He took it upon himself to deal with the
bureaucratic hurdles that I faced at that time and he championed my
career here in those early years. My life would have taken a very
different path if not for the intervention and support of Alastair,
and I will always remember and be grateful to him for this.
It was unfortunate that his last days were so difficult but he
faced the health issues he had with great courage and
Alastair led a very fulfilling life with many interests and
talents. He leaves behind many grateful patients for his services
and friends and colleagues for the wonderful example he set as a
doctor and his companionship.
He will be missed by his patients, a wide circle of friends and
he will be remembered by all as an intellectual, a dedicated
doctor, a great technician, a craftsman, angler, family man and
above all a man of great integrity.
His death leaves a huge gap in the family, Prue, Nick, Amanda,
Kristin, Sarah, their spouses and thirteen grandchildren to whom he
was a wonderful grandfather.
K Nadana Chandran FRACS
The Canberra Hospital
Clinical Associate Professor
ANU Clinical School