First, I would like to thank you all very much for coming to this memorial service. I am going to talk about two things: about Bobby’s life and about Bobby as my father.
On page 3 of your Order of Service, there’s a brief encapsulation of some of the milestones in Bobby Roberts’ life. Bobby left us a somewhat fuller account of his life – and here it is! In the late 1980s and early 1990s, he wrote an autobiography. It’s about 250 pages long … and that only take us up to the mid-1970s. In this part of my address, I am going to read you several extracts about different periods in his life.
On page 1 we learn that Bobby’s love of travel did not stem from his father’s genes.
When I was about 6 months old, my parents decided to emigrate to Canada. By some mischance their luggage went astray and the first impressions of Canada were no doubt highly coloured by this misfortune. Whether it was the remoteness or the approaching winter, I do not know, but when after a few months a telegram arrived to say that the luggage had been found and was in Quebec, my father replied “Keep it there, we’ll collect it on our way back to England.”
No, Bobby’s wander-lust was clearly inherited from his mother, Olive.
In 1917, when I was six years old, my parents had a serious quarrel … and a short time later my parents separated … My mother took me and we rode off on her bicycle, with me on the carrier, and we went all the way [from Stockton-on-Tees] to her parents in … London. The distance … is about 240 miles or just under 400 kilometres.
As you’ll see from the list of milestones of page 3, Bobby was a chorister at Christ Church, Oxford. In his autobiography, he points out that the choir-boys had to stay at school during the Easter and Christmas holidays to sing in the Cathedral, but:
During the lead-up to Christmas, many good people tried to alleviate the hardship for the poor little boys, so as well as rehearsals … we were invited to parties almost daily by the Dean, the Archdeacons, the Bishop and so on, so that to go home might have been an anticlimax but for the fact that our parents were guilt-ridden at having deprived their off-spring of a normal Christmas at home and felt obliged to make it up to us by laying on extra treats such as the Circus, a Pantomime, more parties and special favours.
After he qualified as a doctor and later as an anaesthetist, Bobby spent the whole of World War II working at the Middlesex Hospital in London.
His war started quietly, so much so that he went skiing in France in January 1940! However, it wasn’t long before Bobby had seriously injured patients coming to the [operating] theatre during the nights of the Blitz.[They] were mostly the victims of collapsing buildings and suffered broken bones and, more dangerously, the sinister ‘Crush Syndrome’ …
My main memory of those nights in the anaesthetic room was the appalling dirt which characterized nearly all the victims due to the dust of the crumbling rubble of destroyed buildings. One had to wash the bodies of patients in order to assess the extent of the damage to any part. A deep covering of mixed blood and dust could hide a severe injury or … a superficial scratch.
The war got even closer.
… during the night of 17 April 1941 … I went up to the theatres to get a syringe full of Pentothal. … As I was doing so a 500 kg bomb fell on the East Wing and caused severe damage on the sixth, fifth and fourth floors while I was walking, syringe in hand, on the second floor. We were so busy all that night … dealing with the casualties, that it was not until the next day that I realized how close it had been to me.
The war had other surprises in store for Bobby:
One morning in early 1941 … in Oxford Street I met Lilian Banks (nee Wynn) with a young man going to have coffee at the Marble Arch Lyons Corner House. I hadn’t seen her since … I had visited her at the RAF Base in Thornaby in 1937. Since that time she had had a great tragedy in that her husband, Sandy, had been killed while he was instructing junior pilots in night flying in April 1938. … I said I had to go to give an anaesthetic but that I would be free in about a quarter of an hour and could I join them in the Corner House?
Well, one coffee led to another … and to Lilian and Bobby’s marriage on 5 September 1942 – a marriage that lasted for more than 60 years. Stuart, Charles and I owe our very existence to that chance meeting and to the Lyons Corner House coffees – and other events – that followed it.
After the war, Bobby accepted a joint hospital and teaching post in Utrecht in Holland. One day while there, Bobby writes:
[I was] requested to give an anaesthetic to the youngest member of the Dutch royal family, the princess Marijke, who had bilateral congenital cataracts. …When the child was bought into the operating theatre, … I found to my dismay that she was suffering from a head cold and in no fit state for a general anaesthetic for an eye operation. I had a great deal of difficulty in persuading the doctors and staff that this was the proper course, but I stuck to my ground … and the operation was reluctantly postponed. A few days later the first of three operations went ahead.
We moved to South Africa in January 1949 and lived in Johannesburg until mid-1962. I’m going to read you just one extract from Bobby’s autobiography about his time in Africa.
… in 1957 I was delighted to get an opportunity to visit the renowned Albert Schweitzer at his jungle hospital in Lambarene in French Equatorial Africa … The evening meals [at Lambarene were] presided over by Schweitzer who opened the ceremony by grace in French. We all sat at one long table covered with spotless linen and illuminated by a series of oil lamps, Schweitzer in the middle of one side flanked by the two senior nurses … . After dinner two or three of the nurses handed round hymn books printed in German and Schweitzer announced which was the hymn for the day and then he would go to an old piano that stood in the dining room and play the accompaniment and everyone sang the hymn …
By way of a footnote I should add that in addition to being a doctor of medicine and a doctor of theology, Albert Schweizer also had a doctorate in music. He was an organist and J.S. Bach specialist – which accounts for the final piece of music in today’s memorial service for Bobby.
Bobby Roberts as a young doctor
In 1962 Bobby and Lilian moved to Hobart after Bobby was appointed Director of Anaesthetics at the Royal Hobart Hospital. This is the time that many of you first met Bobby. I didn’t come to Tasmania with Bobby and Lilian in 1962, but went instead to the United States on an American Field Service – AFS – scholarship. Bobby writes in his autobiography:
I made enquiries locally in Hobart [about AFS] … and was told that AFS did exist in Australia but under the umbrella of the Australian American Association, and as Tasmania did not have a branch of that Society, Tasmanians were not eligible for AFS scholarships. The only way to get AFS in Tasmania would be to start a Tasmanian branch of the Australian American Association … The President [of the Association] offered to come to Hobart to address a public meeting if I could arrange a suitable venue, so I contacted the Lord Mayor of Hobart, Basil Osborne, and he agreed to have a meeting in the Town Hall. The Lord Mayor’s secretary, Mrs Claire Rust, was most helpful suggesting the names of prominent Hobart citizens who ought to be invited.
These small beginnings led to some wonderful friendships for both Bobby and Lilian, as well as to the establishment of AFS in Tasmania.
Those are all the extracts from Bobby’s autobiography time permits me to share with you today. I want to switch now and say something briefly about …
BOBBY AS MY FATHER:
He was an incredibly encouraging father who supported his children in quests to achieve their wildest dreams. When I was 15 years old, for example, Mum and Dad not only let me hitch-hike 6,000 miles from Johannesburg to Mt Kilimanjaro and return, but when no-one else at my school had parents who would let a child of theirs accompany me, via a contact he had in the Johannesburg children’s hospital, Dad found someone we did not even know who had a son who also wanted to hitch-hike to East Africa, and Dad arranged for us to meet, to team up, and to head off together – two 15 year old schoolboys – on what I still regard as my first great adventure. Then twelve months later, Mum and Dad let Stuart and me (the two of us were really mature then: we were 14 and 16 years old respectively) hitchhike together from Johannesburg via Kimberley to Cape Town and then home via the ‘Garden route’ – a total distance of about 2,400 miles.
For the rest of his life, Dad was my greatest supporter in all my quests. I remember him ferrying me before dawn 21 years ago to the Cadbury Factory here in Hobart so I could run that summer’s half-marathon. Together with Evan, my son, he then followed me the whole way in his car taking video pictures of the race. It was my fastest ever half-marathon: with support like that, I could only do well. When I went climbing in Russia, Argentina and Alaska, Dad not only wanted to know all about the expeditions, but he would also arrange for me to talk to the School for Seniors in Kingston about them whenever I visited Tasmania.
This is not to say Dad spoilt me. He could be a hard task-master. When we lived in South Africa, he laboured ceaselessly to ensure Anthony, Stuart and I did not acquire what he regarded as dreadful South African accents. Ag man, we can only be really thankful that he was successful!
When I was sixteen, Dad offered me one hundred pounds, ₤100 sterling that is, if I did not smoke until I was 21. I accepted the challenge and at my 21st birthday party Dad presented me with an itemized list of all the money I’d borrowed from him in the preceding five years and 43 measly Australian pounds: the balance of the ₤100 sterling I’d won by not smoking.
Finally, many of you knew Bobby as an anaesthetist. Well, let me tell you about Dad the psychologist. When I was a university student here in Hobart, I borrowed Dad’s car – a big Holden – to go on a date. It was a far more comfortable car than the little bucket-seat Mini Minor Stuart and I used. My date and I parked half-way up Mt Wellington … to admire the view. When we tried to leave, the Holden’s wheels simply spun round and round on the dew-sodden grass, gaining no traction whatsoever. The car would not move. It didn’t budge an inch. So we walked up to the old Springs Hotel and rang Dad, who got out of bed in the middle of the night, drove up the mountain in the Mini, and towed us off the grass and onto the road. Dad then went back home in the Mini, leaving me to take my girl-friend home. Thankfully Dad had gone to bed by the time I got home, but I dreaded meeting him in the morning. What would he say? I was in mortal fear of meeting him, but I couldn’t avoid him for ever, and we eventually met in the kitchen in the morning.
And what did he say to me? Bobby the anaesthetist was really good, but Dad the psychologist was great. When we met in the kitchen, Dad said absolutely nothing! It was the most effective telling-off I ever received ... and on that note I’ll say nothing more. Thank you.
— Nigel Roberts
Hobart, Tasmania; Saturday, 12 February 2005
My son Simon tells me that Winston Churchill once said that it takes three hours to prepare a five minute speech, but it only takes 5 minutes to prepare a three hour speech. I can tell you that this week has been quite hectic, so if anybody wants a break at about one and a half hours, please let me know.
As most of you would know, Dad could be quite persistent at times. He would say to me: “I am strong willed, you are stubborn, but he is just bloody minded.” Well, I am here to let you into a secret – at times, Dad was slightly more than just strong willed – he was plain bloody minded.
I had the job of dismantling his computer when we packed up his things at Mary Ogilvy – and the pleasure of keeping on disc a number of the things that he wrote and stored in the memory of that computer. One such thing was the letter that he wrote to the Medical Council of Tasmania on 8 th October 2002. In that letter, he said:
I see no reason why you should expect a fee at all, let alone $50, to be kept on the Register if I do not intend to practice at all.
I am currently on the British and the South African Registers and they do not expect any fee.
Keeping my name on the Tasmanian Register would not cost you anything and I feel that at my age the sudden disappearance would be taken as implying that I was no longer alive.
Francis William Roberts
To me that was an example his strong willed nature. However, some on the medical council no doubt thought: “Bobby’s being bloody minded again.”
Also among Dad’s computer records was a transcript of an audio tape that he had made. That transcript is entitled: “RECOLLECTIONS” - ORAL HISTORY RECORDING - DR F.W.ROBERTS. In that he explains in his own words how he became an anaesthetist: He said:
I started off with the idea of doing Gynaecology and Obstetrics. I had won the prize for the year when I was doing it at the Middlesex and I thought that I would like to do it. I had advice from one of the Gynaecologists on staff ... and he mapped out a plan for me to do 6 months as a House Physician after I had already done 6 months as a House Surgeon, and then 6 months as a House Surgeon for Gynae and Obstetrics and then to get to registrar, take the FRCS and then await appointment to a Hospital.
Well I had to wait at least 2 months for the next House Physician job so I went into Digs and swatted by going to the Hospital, haunting the path laboratory. One day I was in there and the Senior Resident … came to me and said: “Bobby, you have got to apply for the job of Junior Resident Anaesthetist. We have no-one else applying for it except for old “stinker so and so”. He said: “You know – even you would get the job”.
And so armed with that guarantee of my good behaviour and suitability, I decided to do it because it was only a 6 month job and I was very young and had time to spare and as the Senior Resident pointed out “a knowledge of anaesthetics wouldn’t do me any harm even if I was a Gynaecologist”.
So I did that job for 4 months and then the Senior Resident Anaesthetist’s father who was practicing in Kent had a heart attack. He was running a single practice, so his son the Senior Resident Anaesthetist had to go and look after his practice. They then said to me: “Well you’re the only person who knows anything about anaesthetics so you’ve got to be the Senior Resident”.
Well, at the end of that year I got to quite like anaesthetics so I decided to carry on a bit.
From my biased point of view, that was a typically modest explanation of how Dad ended up doing what he did so well for so many years.
Bobby Roberts (posing formally for
a Royal Hobart Hospital portrait)
That oral history recording of Dad’s also gives some insight into his realisation that he knew when it was time to call it quits. In relation to anaesthesia, his exact words were:
I retired from anaesthetics in 1981 after 50 years in giving anaesthetics first as student with a rag and bottle and then as a medical practitioner. I retired as I was seventy years old and not able to keep abreast of the new changes in the industry.
Going through the records on Dad’s computer confirmed for me that he had a great sense of humour. Dad especially loved all the funny emails that he received – on average they came from Kati Thompson at the rate of about three for every one from everybody else
His oral history recollections conclude this way:
I would like to tell you an amusing incident which occurred when I was working in the Middlesex Hospital before the war. The surgeon was a chap called Pierce Gould and he was assisted by a student called Austin. He got down to where the gallbladder was all exposed and he said: “There you are Austin, you can see I’m just going to clamp that there and then we can start.” Austin poked his head forwards and the tape from the mask caught in the end of the forceps he had on the gallbladder. He stepped back and we had rubber soled boots and he slipped on the wet floor and fell down, dragging the gallbladder out with him. Pierce looked at him and said: “I think you better change your gown and scrub up again” and that was all.
Then week later there was another operation and Austin was there and it was also a gallbladder. Pierce Gould looked at him and said: “I think I’ll take this one out if you don’t mind Austin.”
These have been just some of the things that Dad said and some of my thoughts.
I hope that you will raise a glass to Dad from time to time, remembering his instructions about a good whisky –
Half whisky, half water but with a lot of water.
— Stuart Roberts
Hobart, Tasmania; Saturday, 12 February 2005