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Biographical entry Robinson, Ronald Henry Ottywell Betham (1897 - 1973)

MRCS 1918; FRCS 1921; MB BCh Cambridge 1919; LRCP 1918.

6 February 1973
General surgeon and Urological surgeon


R H O B Robinson was born in 1897 in London. He was known to his friends as Joey.

His childhood was spent in Upper Wimpole Street where his father practised as a consulting surgeon; and he lived all his days in a world of surgery that was changing. His career spanned the years that marked the evolution of surgery from Edwardian to contemporary methods. His father was called "The General" at St Thomas's Hospital and he brought Joey up in the strict regime and social manners of the times. These were the days before telephones or motor cars; days when the night staff at the hospital could only communicate with the consulting surgeon by sending a porter to Wimpole Street in a hansom cab. As a boy Joey met all the distinguished surgeons of the late Victorian era and he was taught to revere the art of a profession that many considered to be at its acme. Science had not yet taken over.

He was educated at Malvern College and Kings College, Cambridge, where he won a senior scholarship - an award of which he was very proud. He arrived at St Thomas's as a medical student at the beginning of the first world war; but soon afterwards, he enlisted in the Royal Navy as a Surgeon Probationer.

By 1921 he had the FRCS Diploma and soon afterwards he was elected to the consulting staff of St Thomas's Hospital as a general surgeon. There were very few special departments in those days and general surgery was the calling of those who aimed high. Strange as it may now seem he wrote the chapter on orthopaedic surgery in the first edition of the book by Mitchiner and Romanis. He was Arris and Gale Lecturer in 1930.

When Joey first became a surgeon to out-patients at St Thomas's the majority of his colleagues prided themselves on their ability to operate with great speed, and to be able to work in almost any improvised surroundings - the kitchen of a private house for instance - and with the uninformed assistance of general practitioner anaesthetists. Joey never operated except in a properly equipped operating theatre, and he strove to perfect for himself techniques that later became commonplace: pre-and post-operative care, an accurate incision, good exposure, haemostasis and gentleness.

Although he began his career as a general surgeon he soon specialised in urology. He became the senior surgeon at St Thomas's and he filled his important post with care and dignity.

He was devoted to the Royal College of Surgeons of England and he served as chairman of the Court of Examiners, member of Council, and chairman of the library committee. At the age of 65, at the time of his retirement from St Thomas's Hospital, he also retired from the Council of the College as a matter of principle. He was also President of the Urological Section of the Royal Society of Medicine, Vice-President of the British Association of Urologists, and Master of the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers.

In spite of these important offices, held in the service of surgery, he did not seek and he did not get any special honours. Indeed his sterling merits were only known to his intimate friends: to others they were hidden under a cloak of humility.

Throughout his life he had great strength of purpose; an attribute that was revealed when he was a junior doctor and courting Miss Audrey Walker. This young lady was, at first, doubtful of his merits and she went to India to reflect. Joey gave up his work, went to India, brought her back to England and married her: and they lived happily ever after. In his home he was fond of gardening and of flowers: he took a professional interest in motor cars and was a devotee of vintage Bentleys.

His patients often found him shy but they saw so much of him that they soon were able to discuss their fears and anxieties with him, and from him many drew their resolve. The medical students, on his firms, were likewise rather inhibited at first but, with time, they came to appreciate his great clinical scholarship. And it is noticeable that many of them kept up their association with him long after they had left St Thomas's. His conversation was somewhat formal but the shafts of dry wit that crept into the things he said were the more effective because they were unexpected.

He was well-read, learned about general affairs, and somewhat philosophical; and in all his dealings with his fellow men he was scrupulously fair. Above all else he was a sensitive, tolerant, gentleman.

He died on 6 February 1973, and was survived by his wife.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Brit med J 1973, 1, 424; Lancet 1973, 1, 384].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England