6 December 1925 - 20 September 2019  

Robert Mitchell qualified in Medicine at the University of Otago gaining the Gold Medal in Anatomy and the Senior Scholarship in Medicine. He undertook the B.Med.Sci. and his degree thesis, postnatal development in the rat adrenal, was published in 1948 and attracted interest. This demonstrated his early enthusiasm and aptitude for research.

He was awarded a New Zealand Universities Travelling Scholarship to the United Kingdom and worked his passage over as a ship’s doctor in early 1952. He was employed as a Registrar at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge. Whilst in England, he obtained the Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons.

On returning to New Zealand in 1953 he worked as a Senior Surgical Registrar, later Senior Lecturer in the Department of Surgery, University of Otago. During this time he developed an interest in renal research demonstrated through publications with Michael Woodruff. In 1959 he became Reader in Surgery at the University of Queensland and surgeon in the Royal Brisbane Hospital.

His enthusiasm for medical research led him in 1964 to be awarded a Carnegie Travel Grant to study surgical techniques and the teaching of surgery in medical schools in the United States and Canada. This he combined with a sabbatical year as Research Fellow in Surgery at Harvard Medical School and Harvey Cushing Fellow in the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts. In the Peter Bent Brigham, with Joseph Murray’s team, he was amongst the international vanguard of the rapidly developing research into preventing rejection in renal transplantation. This work included early study of whether antilymphocyte serum was effective as an immunosuppressive agent for homografts. The work he did in Boston resulted in papers published with Joseph Murray (subsequently 1990 Nobel 1 prizewinner for the development of kidney and bone-marrow transplants) and focussed much of his subsequent surgical career.

Following his return to Brisbane in 1965 he worked in the Princess Alexandra Hospital and was Acting Professor of Surgery University of Queensland. In 1967 he was appointed to the Foundation Chair of Surgery at the University of Tasmania, a position he held until 1977. During this time he undertook responsibility for setting up the new Department of Surgery in Hobart. He performed the first renal transplantations in Tasmania.

In 1977 he moved to a Chair of Surgery at the University of New South Wales where, at St George Hospital, he specialised in thyroid and breast surgery. His other roles included Director of the Australian Kidney Foundation, Chairman of the Medical and Scientific Advisory Committee of the Australian Kidney Foundation, Member of the Examinations Committee of the Australian Medical Council, Chairman of the Cancer Care Committee at St George Hospital, Member of the National Health & Medical Research Council Scientific Committee and President of the Surgical Research Society.

Following his retirement from surgery in 1987, he was Visiting Surgeon and Chairman of the Quality Committee of the Division of Surgery at St George Hospital. In 2001 he became Emeritus Professor, University of New South Wales. He undertook medico-legal consultant work in Sydney from 1988 until he moved to his retirement home in Ballina in 2002. He retained his life-long interest and devotion to medical research but was then also able to more fully enjoy his oil painting, boating and international travel.

Robert Mitchell was born in Thames, New Zealand on 6th December 1925, to parents Jack and Florence (née Hockenhull). He was the eldest of three children. Through hard work and a love of learning he became Dux of Thames High School and won a scholarship to study in Auckland from where he was successful in getting into the University of Otago. His father Jack was a school woodwork teacher and Robert became the first member of his family to study at university. A love of woodworking and appreciation of practical skills was his inheritance from his father and remained with him throughout his life. Robert Mitchell was widely regarded as a concerned and caring practitioner and by his students as a fine teacher.

His wife Ruth (née Adams) was his contemporary at medical school and an accomplished mountaineer who had been one of the four who had climbed the South Ridge of Mt Cook for the first time in 1948. She later excelled in the field of Pathology and electron microscopy. She pre-deceased him in 1990. They had three children.

Robert Mitchell passed away peacefully on 20th September 2019 in Ballina.


Obituary kindly provided by Dr Chris Mitchell AM (son)