Phillips, Gilbert Edward

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BSc 1926 MSc 1927 MB BS 1929 MSurgery 1936 Gilbert Phillips was one of the founders of the Northcott Neurological Centre. He was the first to study the blood groups of Australian Aboriginals and Maoris.[1]

Gilbert Edward Phillips was born in Sydney, 1905. He entered university with an exhibition in medicine in 1923. In the following two years he obtained credits in second and third year Medicine, and then proceeded to take a Bachelor of Science in Physiology in 1926, obtaining first-class honours and the University Medal. He continued with fourth year Medicine, also gaining a Master of Science in Physiology, again with first-class honours and winning the University Medal. The subject of his master’s thesis was An Introduction to the Study of Iso-Haem-Agglutination Reactions of the Blood of Australian Aboriginals. A year or so later, Gilbert went to New Zealand to study the blood groups of the Maori and was admitted to kinship of a Maori tribe. (He was to visit New Zealand once more in 1950, as Medical Adviser to the team representing Australia at the Empire Games). In 1929, he obtained his final degree in Medicine. In 1936, he was awarded a Master of Surgery and two years later, became a Fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons.

In the early 1930s, Gilbert worked as a Liston Wilson Research Fellow, first in the Department of Anatomy for a year. With the aid of a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship from 1931 to 1933, he then went to England to work as Research Assistant to Sir Charles Sherrington from Oxford and Professor ED Adrian from Cambridge, publishing work on the sympathetic nervous system, postural reflex action, the cochlea, myotatic reflexes in sympathectomized muscle, and on the perception of flicker in lesion of the visual pathways, et cetera. Gilbert was also Clinical Clerk to Dr Gordon Holmes at the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases, London and Surgical Assistant to Hugh Cairns, later Sir Hugh Cairns, at that time at the London Hospital.

These years with Sherrington, Adrian, Gordon Holmes and Cairns were the formative years of his life, during which Gilbert laid the foundations of knowledge fundamental to the anatomy and physiology of the nervous system. His whole life was dominated by the endeavour to integrate all these scientific and practical disciplines in the service of neurology and neurosurgery.

In 1934, on his return to Sydney, Gilbert was made Assistant Lecturer in Surgery at the University and given a full Lectureship in 1935 and 1936, one of the conditions of the Rockefeller Fellowship. At the same time, he was Honorary Neurological Surgeon at the Lewisham General Hospital and carried out work on the general treatment of head injuries. From this time until his death, Gilbert was also Lecturer in Neurology and Applied Neurophysiology in the Department of Anatomy.

Around 1934 he completed his work on myotatic reflexes in association with Stuart Morson, then a student, for which they were awarded the 1935 Peter Bancroft Prize of the University of Sydney. In 1937, as part of his Rockefeller Fellowship, he began visiting the prominent neurological centres in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.

During the War, Gilbert served in the Royal Australian Air Force in Richmond, NSW and his services there led to the development of two research centres of the University of Sydney and the University of Melbourne. Just after the War, the famous American General, George Patton, was injured in a car accident. Gilbert and Cairn were flown to Austria, but found that little could be done for Patton, who had a fracture of the upper cervical part of the vertebral column.

In the period from 1947 to 1951, he was instrumental in establishing the diagnostic neurological centre later to be called the Northcott Neurological Centre. However, his career was cut short by his untimely death in 1952 at the age of 47.

Citation: Mellor, Lise (2008) Phillips, Gilbert Edward. 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.