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Biographical entry Robins, Robert Henry Cradock (1923 - 2015)

BA Cambridge 1944; MB BChir 1946; FRCS 1950.

7 August 1923
High Wycombe
23 February 2015
Hand surgeon and Orthopaedic surgeon


Robert Robins, known as 'Robbie' to his family and friends, was an orthopaedic surgeon noted for his role in the development of hand surgery, a bon viveur and a well-known figure in Cornish society.

He was born on 7 August 1923 to Ethel May Robins née Greenwood and Hugh Canning Cradock Robins, a bank manager, in High Wycombe. Robins attended Aldenham School, where he was a scholar, before proceeding to Queens' College, Cambridge, to read medicine. It was said that he chose medicine as a career as a consequence of his older brother having polio and the many hospital visits that he made as a child. His clinical training was at St Bartholomew's Hospital, qualifying in 1947, before becoming house surgeon to Clifford Naunton Morgan and Edward Tuckwell.

After house jobs he was called up for National Service and spent time as a ship's doctor in the merchant navy. In his early training he worked at Bath as a senior house officer and subsequently in Newcastle, where he was the recipient of a Luccock medical research fellowship studying aspects of hand surgery, which then was no more than a relatively minor branch of orthopaedics. This research led in 1952 to the inaugural award of the Sir James Berry prize by the Royal College of Surgeons for his dissertation titled 'The treatment and preservation of the injured hand'. It also led in 1954 to a Hunterian Lecture on the same subject.

He then moved to Oxford as a registrar and then to the Princess Elizabeth Orthopaedic Hospital, Exeter, as a senior registrar, where he was greatly influenced by Norman Capener. During his time in Exeter he was a Council of Europe travelling fellow to Sweden and France and, in 1960, a British Orthopaedic Association travelling fellow to North America. In 1961 he was appointed as a consultant orthopaedic surgeon at the Royal Cornwall Hospital in Truro, where he continued his special interest in hand surgery. In the same year he published a monograph Injuries and infections of the hand (London, Edward Arnold).

In 1956, Robins was one of five founder members of the Second Hand Club, a group of young enthusiasts who were keen to promote the development of hand surgery as a specialty. A few years earlier, in 1952, the Hand Club had been founded by 12 senior surgeons who wished to keep it exclusive to the original members, sufficiently small for a Friday evening dinner at the Athenaeum Club in London, followed by a short scientific meeting on the Saturday morning. This was called by some 'a dining club with hand surgery as gossip'. The young upstarts of the new society, however, envisaged a much broader organisation with countrywide membership and its own journal, the Proceedings of the Second Hand Club. This publication later became the Journal of Hand Surgery, of which Robins was chairman of the editorial board for 10 years. The two clubs merged in 1964 and four years later became the British Society for Surgery of the Hand, Robins being president in 1979.

Throughout his consultant appointment Robins practiced the entire range of orthopaedic surgery, being one of only three orthopaedic surgeons on the staff, but continued his close interest in hand surgery, publishing several articles and chapters in textbooks on this subject. He maintained a close involvement with the hand surgery fraternity and was twice a British Council fellow promoting the developing specialty, travelling to Czechoslovakia in 1975 and Hungary in 1979. Despite a very busy clinical practice he found time to be a member of the Cornwall Area Heath Authority, become an examiner for the Edinburgh college FRCS and serve on various committees both locally in Cornwall and at the English college. He retired from the NHS in 1988 aged 65. In 2001 he was recognised internationally by the designation 'pioneer of hand surgery' by the International Federation of Societies for Surgery of the Hand.

Robert Robins had a rich life outside of surgery. He enjoyed travel, especially to his beloved France, where he once owned two houses simultaneously. He was a keen landscape gardener, an able fisherman and an enthusiastic sailor, although his expertise in seafaring was uncertain. On one occasion in somewhat rough weather the engine of his boat Sea Urchin gave out, the halyard of the main sail broke and the anchor was found unserviceable, so that the craft was at the mercy of the waves. Fortunately an emergency flare summoned the local lifeboat and a rescue was effected by the crew, one of whom was a former patient. The incident was inevitably blazoned in the local newspaper a few days later, much to his considerable embarrassment. Although never a proficient sportsman, he was a keen follower of rugby and cricket, being a member of the MCC for many years.

Other interests were art and architecture, folk music and a regular Thursday evening spent Morris dancing - he claimed that this was better exercise and less dangerous than sport! He became a pillar of Cornish society, becoming a close friend of many well known artists of the Truro school, local intellectuals, authors and owners of houses with large gardens. He seemed to know everyone who was anyone in Cornwall; at his service of thanksgiving he was described as being the consummate networker.

A devoted family man, in 1953 he married Shirley, a physiotherapist whom he met when working in Exeter. They had four children, a daughter, Elizabeth, and three sons, Michael, James and Nicholas. He died of metastatic carcinoma of the prostate on 23 February 2015 aged 91.

Sir Barry Jackson

Sources used to compile this entry: [BMJ 2015 350 2407 - accessed 3 September 2015; West Briton 29 March 2015 - accessed 3 September 2015; Michael Robins; personal knowledge].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England