Blackburn, Sir Charles Bickerton

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MB ChM 1899 MD 1903 Hon DLitt 1965 BA (Adel), FRACP (Foundation), PRACP, FRCPE (Hon), FRCP

Sir Charles Bickerton Blackburn was one of the founders of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians and was its foundation President. He was Dean of Medicine at the University of Sydney from 1932 to 1935 and in 1941, was elected Chancellor, serving in the position for 23 years. On his retirement, the Senate appointed him Chancellor Emeritus and his work is commemorated by the Chancellor’s Garden.

Charles was born in April 1874 in the Parish of Greenhithe in Kent, the second son of Archdeacon Thomas Blackburn, an Anglican priest. Soon afterwards his family moved to Hawaii, then British territory, where Charles spent the first seven years of his life. They then moved to Woodville, near Adelaide. This became their final home, and the two sons attended St Peter’s Collegiate School in Adelaide where Charles at once distinguished himself. Enrolling as an undergraduate at the University of Adelaide, he became a BA, at the age of 19, a significant omen of future achievement. He then entered the Faculty of Medicine at the same University. In 1895, as he was about to commence his clinical training, an academic dispute interrupted the progress of his class and he transferred to the University of Sydney. Despite instructions by the Dean, Professor Anderson Stuart, on what ‘not’ to do in his medical school, it was not long before Charles was caught playing cricket in one of the corridors and fined one pound!

He graduated with honours, top of the year, in 1899 (when only 11 out of 23 managed to complete their degree), and was appointed to the Resident Staff of the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. Two years later, he was the Medical Superintendent of this institution. Hospital duties did not prevent him from preparing a thesis for his MD degree, which he was awarded in 1903. His ability was noticed by Anderson Stuart, who was also Chairman of the Hospital Board, and in 1903, Charles was appointed Honorary Assistant Physician.

Charles commenced practice at 229 Macquarie Street, Sydney and attended outpatients at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, where he was also required to undertake student teaching, although not yet an official Medical Tutor.

He became a full Honorary Physician with inpatient responsibility and a full teaching load in 1911, and continued these duties until his retirement from the active staff in 1934. He remained an Honorary Consultant Physician till his death 38 years later, also serving as Honorary Consultant to the Prince Henry Hospital for many years.

In 1916, Charles enlisted in the AIF in World War I and was appointed Pathologist to the 14th Australian General Hospital in Egypt. His wide clinical knowledge ensured that he was also in demand as a consultant. He was awarded the Order of the British Empire, and twice mentioned in dispatches. During the World War II, he remained in Australia but retained his rank of Lieutenant-Colonel and acted as a Senior Consultant at the 113th AGH, Concord.

From 1932 to 1935, Charles was Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Sydney, in addition to his other commitments at Prince Alfred Hospital and at the NSW branch of the British Medical Association. He had been elected a Councillor of the British Medical Association (BMA) in 1910, and became its President for a year in 1920. He remained a Councillor for almost forty years, as well as being an active Member and Chairman of the Ethics Committee, where his long experience was extremely valuable. He was elected a Fellow of the Australian Medical Association in 1964, and became life Vice President of the branch. He attended all council meetings conscientiously, but would rarely speak until his opinion was requested. He was an excellent mediator and considered irreplaceable as Chairman of the Ethics Committee.

Sir Charles was made a Knight Bachelor in 1936, and Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George in 1960.

Having been elected to the University of Sydney Senate in 1919, he served as a Fellow for the next 45 years, becoming Chancellor from 1941 to 1964, and Chancellor Emeritus by resolution of the Senate from March 1965 until his death. His appointment as Chancellor Emeritus, we are told, gave him the greatest satisfaction. In November 1965, Sir Charles was awarded the degree of Doctor of Letters honoris causa in recognition of his service to the University of Sydney. During his chancellorship, he is said to have conferred degrees on 31,000 students.

One of his greatest achievements was in his role as the first President of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians. He gave a memorable address at the inaugural ceremony held with due pomp in the Great Hall of the University of Sydney in the presence of many distinguished guests including representatives of overseas colleges. He concluded by summarising what he considered to be the essential objective of the College: “fostering facilities for young graduates to acquire advanced knowledge of medicine.”

Sir Charles would never permit anyone to harbour the impression that he alone had been responsible for the creation of the College. He had not been one of the prime movers of the concept, which was the product of many minds and hands, from all parts of Australia and New Zealand. It was the offspring of the Association of Physicians, and, as a very senior and popular member, Sir Charles was an eminently suitable and capable candidate for the inaugural Presidency. He took on the task with great zeal, working hard to guide the fledgling College in its formative days. He was largely responsible for obtaining the funds needed to buy a suitable building for the College headquarters and his own home became the meeting place for the Executive Committee before 145 Macquarie Street was available for occupation.

Sydney gained, much when he changed medical schools from Adelaide. He was a remarkable and dedicated leader with the ability to represent his profession with dignity and charm. His ability to flatter was a useful attribute. He described me as “One of the best residents I have had!” I lost some of my joy when several others told me they had been granted identical praise.

At his funeral, many spoke of Sir Charles’ contribution. According to Professor B R Williams, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sydney, “He represented the University with distinction in community affairs, both in the style and content of his public speeches. He was regarded with quite remarkable affection.” The late Professor David Maddison, then Dean of the Medical Faculty hailed him as “one of the most remarkable phenomena of his age, not only in medicine but in society at large. He was a man of extraordinary dignity”. Dr N Larkins, then Secretary of the NSW branch of the Australian Medical Association, described him as a “great patrician, and undoubtedly the doyen of the medical profession in NSW”. Appropriately, his name has been given to the Blackburn Pavilion at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, and to the Blackburn Building which houses much of the Medical Faculty within the University.

His chief distractions were his garden and his golf. He was slightly better at the former, but liked winning at the latter, and shamelessly demanded a variable handicap with each opponent! He never had to wait at the first tee at the Royal Sydney Golf Club, for the starter would call his name as soon as he appeared. Those of us fortunate enough to have been associated with him in one way or another were privileged to learn, not so much the science of medicine, as bedside care, clinical evaluation, encouragement of our fellow mortals and relief of their anxieties and pain. His success as a physician was the result of intelligent conservatism plus shrewd individual analysis, rather than scientific originality. He was not a braggart – if he did evince a preference for being in the front row, he deserved it.

His Presidential portrait still hangs in pride of place in the Council Room of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians. For many years this has meant that his portrait hung above the head of the current president during Council meetings. Whist the room has now been transformed around it, his portrait remains in its original place in recognition of his inaugural Presidency.[1]

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

An alternate version appears in: Mellor, L. 150 Years, 150 Firsts: The People of the Faculty of Medicine (2006) Sydney, Sydney University Press.