Alastair Robson

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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 success.

He was a man of great integrity with great devotion to his family and absolute dedication to his patients and the craft of neurosurgery.

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 him.

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 fortitude.

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

Visiting Neurosurgeon
The Canberra Hospital
Clinical Associate Professor
ANU Clinical School