Blackburn, Charles Ruthven Bickerton

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MD 1939 MD honoris causa 1991

Charles (Ruthven) Blackburn is considered to be the pioneer of Clinical Research at the University of Sydney. As such he forged strong and ongoing links between researchers and clinical practitioners at both Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and within the Faculty. He was also responsible for establishing key academic and research posts and for appointing highly competent staff to fill these positions.

The son of Sir Charles Bickerton Blackburn, Chancellor of the University and a former Dean of the Faculty, Ruthven had an outstanding academic record at the University of Sydney. Following a year in the Faculty of Arts, he entered Medicine and graduated in 1936 with first-class honours, winning first place in his Final Year Examination, the Harry J Clayton Memorial Prize for Medicine and Clinical Medicine, the Hinder Memorial Prize for Clinical Surgery and the Windeyer Prize for Obstetrics and Clinical Obstetrics (prox ac). He was a Resident at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and obtained his MD in 1939 for research on myeloma.

In 1940, he joined the AIF and had a distinguished record of war service. He served in the Middle East and New Guinea and finally, in Cairns, as Lieutenant Colonel and Commanding Officer of the Medical Research Unit. There he worked in close association with Sir Neil Hamilton Fairley, carrying out important studies on the chemotherapeutic suppression and prophylaxis of malaria.

After discharge from the army, he was appointed Assistant Physician at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. Following a year as Rockefeller Foundation Fellow at Columbia University, New York, where he came under the influence of Robert F Loeb, he was appointed Director of the Clinical Research Unit at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. He later became Senior Physician, Member of the Board of Directors, Chairman of the Division of Medicine, and Chairman of the Project Planning Team, thus exerting a profound influence on the Hospital and initiating many important changes.

When he was appointed Bosch Professor and Head of the Department of Medicine in 1957, he had an immediate impact on the students and on the teaching of Medicine not only in the Medical School of the University of Sydney, but throughout Australia. C G Lambie had developed an excellent system of medical education, but the method and content of teaching had changed little in the twenty-six years during which he held the Chair. Ruthven inherited a Department in which there was almost no active research, no academic staff and very little in the way of physical facilities. There were, however, several loyal and devoted members of the non-academic staff, W Muir, C Kirkwood, P Donnelly and W Green, who maintained the laboratories, workshops and classes. They continued to serve with Ruthven throughout his 21 years in the Chair.

Ruthven immediately set out to build an academic Department of Medicine with three principal aims: to develop academic Departments in each of the Teaching Hospitals; to develop a strong research-orientated academic group on campus and to attract first-class people into academic medicine; to establish close and harmonious relationships with the teaching hospitals; and to eliminate or blur the difference between academic and non-academic physicians.

He appointed part-time Lecturers and Assistants to the Professor at each of the Teaching Hospitals: Stanley Goulston at Royal Prince Alfred, Alan McGuinness at Sydney, D W Piper at Royal North Shore, and John Hickie at St Vincent’s. Over the years, Professorial academic appointments were made at these hospitals: John Read at Sydney, D W Piper at Royal North Shore and later, when they became full Teaching Hospitals, James Lawrence at the Repatriation General Hospital, Concord, and Peter Castaldi at the Westmead Centre. (St Vincent’s Hospital left the University of Sydney to become a teaching hospital of the University of New South Wales in 1969.) Thus, whereas previously academic medicine had been concentrated entirely at Prince Alfred, Ruthven succeeded in developing it at all the other Teaching Hospitals and establishing an evenness of teaching and academic standards. He himself visited and taught students at each of these Hospitals regularly so as to ensure this uniformity.

To develop a strongly research-orientated academic Department, he decided to strengthen background physics and mathematics in three research areas: clinical physiology, clinical biochemistry and clinical pharmacology. The research physicist Kemp Fowler was appointed as Reader; he had made the first respiratory mass spectrometer at Hammersmith Hospital and developed a mass spectrometer at the University of Sydney. John Read was later to become Professor and developed respiratory physiology. Subsequently, Barry Firkin was appointed Associate Professor of Biochemistry. James McRae, who had trained in Nuclear Medicine and developed this field in Australia, was also appointed Associate Professor. As the academic staff increased, strong research units developed in gastroenterology, cardiology, endocrinology, neurology, immunology, renal medicine, haematology and epidemiology.

In 1968, the new Scandrett Chair of Cardiology was established and Paul Korner was appointed as Foundation Professor. An outstanding physiologist, he developed a cardiological research centre of international renown and trained many young cardiologists and research workers. Upon being appointed Director of the Baker Research Institute in Melbourne in 1974, he was succeeded in the Scandrett Chair by David Kelly, who is assisted by a Senior Lecturer, Peter Fletcher.

Ruthven appreciated the importance in medicine of the rapidly developing science of immunology, and negotiated the establishment of a joint Senior Lectureship in Immunology with the Department of Bacteriology, to which Antony Basten was appointed in 1971.

In 1973, Ruthven submitted a proposal to establish a Chair of Neurology, which was unanimously approved and, due to the generosity of the Bushell Trust, was founded in 1978. James McLeod was appointed to the Chair, assisted by Associate Professor John Pollard. In 1973, John Prinneas, who had previously been a Wellcome Research Fellow in Neurology and then a Senior Lecturer, accepted a Chair in Neurology in the USA which, together with the Chair of Cardiology, was associated with Royal Prince Alfred Hospital.

John Turtle developed a strong endocrinology research group, being appointed to the Chair of Medicine at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital on Ruthven’s retirement. Dennis Yu is Associate Professor in the Endocrinology Unit, based at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. Ann Woolcock, who had worked with the late Professor John Read, was appointed Senior Lecturer in 1973 and later promoted to Associate Professor. She established an active research team in respiratory medicine at the University and at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, which included Associate Professor Colin Sullivan and a part-time Senior Lecturer, Ivan Young.

The Ludwig Institute of Cancer Research was established in the Blackburn Building and at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, and Martin Tattersall was appointed Director and Professor of Cancer Medicine in 1977. In 1982 a Chair of Rheumatology was endowed at the Royal North Shore Hospital.

At the time of Ruthven’s appointment as Professor of Medicine in 1957, he was the only full-time Member of its academic staff. At the time of his retirement there were six full-time Professors and ten other full-time members of the academic staff, as well as Professorial units in all the teaching hospitals.

Ruthven retired from the University of Sydney in 1978 and was appointed Emeritus Professor.[1] On Australia Day 2006, he was made a Companion of the Order of Australia. The citation for his award clearly sums up his achievements and influence on Australian medicine:

For service to the development of academic medicine and medical education in Australia, particularly in relation to the evolving relationship between research and clinical practice, and as a mentor influencing the professional development of a generation of leading health care professionals.[1]

Citation: Mellor, Lise and Witton, Vanessa (2008) Blackburn, Charles Ruthven Bickerton. Faculty of Medicine Online Museum and Archive, University of Sydney.

An alternate version appears in: Young, J A, Sefton, A J, Webb, N. Centenary Book of the University of Sydney Faculty of Medicine, (1984) Sydney University Press for The University of Sydney Faculty of Medicine.