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Biographical entry Skirving, Robert Scot (1859 - 1956)

FRCS by election 1953; MB CM Edin 1881; FRACS foundation 1927; FRACP.

18 December 1859
Campton, East Lothian
15 July 1956
General surgeon and Physician


Born on 18 December 1859 at Campton, near Haddington, East Lothian, he was brought up under a strictly religious discipline with his brothers and sisters by his grandmother until her death. He was educated by a typical Scots dominie at the school in Haddington from which he proceeded to Edinburgh Academy and then, aged 16 and hoping to join the Navy, to Eastman's Royal Naval Academy at Portsmouth. He passed all the necessary examinations only to discover that he was just three weeks too old to join the Royal Navy. Nothing daunted, he entered the Merchant Service and made two voyages to Iceland in a vessel of seven hundred tons, after which he entered as a cadet in the training ship Conway, where he was as he described it "never so happy." He was then apprenticed in the Tantallon Castle of eleven hundred tons, making the journey to Port Adelaide, Australia and returning via Cape Horn. On the way home he developed beri-beri and was landed at Queenstown with the knowledge that he would have to seek some other career than that of the sea, although he had achieved his master's ticket.

He therefore returned to Edinburgh to study medicine, graduating with honours in 1881 and, being barely twenty-one years old, had to do a year's postgraduate study in Dublin and Vienna before obtaining an appointment as house surgeon to Professor Spence, Professor of Surgery at the Royal Infirmary. After other appointments pressure was put upon him to remain in Edinburgh and Argyle Robertson offered him a partnership. However, having seen Australia, he had an urge to return and signed on as ship's surgeon in the emigrant ship Ellora. On arrival he spent some time as a locum tenens in Queensland, but in November 1883 he obtained the appointment of medical superintendent of the Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney, being at the same time appointed an honorary assistant physician. He ceased being medical superintendent in June 1884 and set up in private practice at College Street, Sydney. In 1889 he became honorary physician, which appointment he held up to 1911 when he became honorary consultant physician. In 1889 he was appointed honorary surgeon to St Vincent Hospital, Sydney and this appointment he held until 1923, so that he was in fact senior physician and senior surgeon to two large Sydney hospitals at the same time.

In the South African war he served with his great friend Sir Alexander MacCormick, and in the war of 1914-18 he came to England and was surgeon in charge of the census division at Queen Alexandra's Military Hospital, Millbank, returning to his practice in Sydney in 1919. His third son was killed at Suvla Bay in the Dardanelles campaign and this probably affected his wife's health and saddened his later years.

During the war of 1939-45 he returned to the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital to assist with the teaching at which he was an acknowledged master. He was President of the NSW Board of the BMA in 1891-92 and chief medical referee of the Australian Mutual Provident Society for many years.

He maintained an active interest in surgery up to the time of his death, was a widely read and avid reader, a witty raconteur and always retained his youthful approach to life.

In 1885 he married Lucy Susan Hester, a nurse at the Prince Alfred Hospital, and they had three sons only one of whom, Robert, survived him. His wife died in 1950 at the age of 85. His brother Archie, who died in 1930, was a well known Edinburgh surgeon.

He died on 15 July 1956 aged 96, and by his own request his coffin at the funeral, which was held in St Stephens Presbyterian Church, Sydney on 17 July, was draped with the red ensign.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Med J Aust 1956, 2, 734-737 with portrait, bibliography and appreciations by George Bell, Douglas Miller, J G Edwards and E P Dark; Brit med J 1956, 2, 306 by DG and Sir Robert Hutchison and pp 423-424 by Sir Gordon Gordon-Taylor; Lancet 1956, 2, 361, and p 470 by Charles Corfield; Ann Roy Coll Surg Engl 1956, 19, 264-266 with portrait, by GG-T].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England