JD Robertson

XXXIVth Edinburgh
Anaesthesia Festival
17-19 August 2022

Professor Emeritus James D Robertson - MB ChB MD FRCP(Ed) FRCS(Ed) FFARCSEng DA

1917 - 1989

Photo of Prof Robertson and his department at the (Old) Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, taken around the time of his retirement.
Photo of Prof Robertson and his department at the (Old) Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, taken around the time of his retirement (1983). (click to enlarge, 1MB)

The Professor J D Robertson (JDR) memorial fund and lecture was set up by the Edinburgh & East of Scotland Society of Anaesthetists (EESSA) after his death in 1989 from donations by EESSA members and the Robertson family. Robbie, as he was known in Edinburgh, was the first Professor of Anaesthetics in Edinburgh, having been appointed to a personal chair in 1968 and he is a past President of EESSA. The fund's aim is to provide for a lecture delivered by a distinguished speaker to further education and advance knowledge in anaesthesia, in its broadest meaning. This lecture has been delivered every second year, usually at a joint meeting in Edinburgh with the Glasgow and West of Scotland Society of Anaesthetists, and the lecturer is presented with an engraved commemorative quaich. The Fund's trustees are Professor Roy Robertson, Dr Dick Bowie and Dr Geoffrey Bowler.

The first JDR memorial lecture (The Annals of the Scottish Society of Anaesthetists 1993; no 33: 31 - 36, 3.5MB) was delivered by Professor Sir Gordon Robson CBE, a fellow Scot, in 1992 to a full audience which included the Presidents of: the Royal College of Anaesthetists, the Association of Anaesthetists of Great Britain and Ireland, the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, the Royal College of Surgeons of Surgeons and Physicians Glasgow, the Glasgow and West of Scotland Society of Anaesthetists.  Clearly, Robbie or, as he was known outside Edinburgh, Jimmy Robertson, was highly regarded.

Sir Gordon Robson's appreciation of the life and work of Professor Robertson is attached with permission of the Scottish Society of Anaesthetists (Annals of the Scottish Society of Anaesthetists 1993; no 33: 31-36) and gives an insight into Robbie's academic achievements and considerable contribution to the advance of anaesthetics in Edinburgh and the UK in the post-War decades.

Professor Robertson's 1969 inaugural professorial lecture was entitled, "Anaesthesia: Medicine's Greatest Gift". As well as reminding the audience of the wonderful advance in surgical possibilities that anaesthetics allowed and the safety of obstetric practice he drew attention to the important place Dumfries Royal Infirmary had in hosting the first use of ether anaesthesia in UK, and probably Europe, normally attributed to University Hospital, London. He also traced the development of muscle relaxants, the use of Chloroform by Simpson and the story of the first baby born whose mother had had the advantage of chloroform. The baby was the daughter of a Dr Carstairs from Edinburgh and was known as Anaesthesia Carstairs.

During his time in the Royal Army Medical Corps (1941 - 46) he served in a Casualty Clearing Station taking part in the Normandy landings on D-Day plus 10, as well as spending time in W Africa and the Middle East. He entered the Belsen concentration camp shortly after its liberation. Like many of his generation these experiences had a profound effect on him and undoubtedly influenced his attitudes to the development and fundamental principles of the NHS.

His vision for anaesthesia went beyond the operating theatres, something taken for granted today, but, then, ahead of its time. The Anaesthetic Department acquired Ward 19 in the RIE as the Assisted Respiration Unit, forerunner of today's anaesthetic-led Critical Care Units. Margaret (later Mrs Dick Bowie) who took over nursing charge early on "greatly appreciated Prof Robertson's visit to the unit every morning , his first port of call".

He set up the rotational training scheme for anaesthetic registrars in the 1960s and he and his wife, Pat, were generous hosts to junior anaesthetists as well as to many international postgraduate students. From the 70s onwards, he was in demand as an authoritative and witty speaker in North America, India, Australia and New Zealand. As an overseas Fellowship examiner, he was especially supportive of Khartoum in the Sudan.

Sir Gordon's lecture mentions that Robbie was invited to put his name forward for election as President of the Association but declined on grounds of principle and one might speculate that today's Royal College of Anaesthetists would not be as strong if he had not taken that stance. A hypertensive stroke in 1975 prevented him from running for Dean of the Faculty of Anaesthetists of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, forerunner of the Royal College of Anaesthetists.

Robbie was a natural leader of people whose vision of anaesthesia as medicine's greatest gift sowed the seeds for modern anaesthetics and critical care both in Edinburgh & the East of Scotland and in the UK. The JDR memorial lecture continues his vision.

1992Professor Sir Gordon Robson CBE"The Pursuit of Excellence: an appreciation of the life and achievements of Jimmy Robertson"
1994Dr W R MacRae"Robbie's Years"
1996Dr Gordon Drummond"A Cycle of Rings"
1998Professor Alastair Spence CBETBC
2000Professor James O Drife"Evidence Based Medicine"
2002Professor Sir David Carter FRSE"Medicine at the Crossroads"
2004Professor Alexander McCall-Smith CBETBC
2006Professor Tony WildsmithFourteen single days (remembered) in November
2008Dr David Whitaker"In Feathersone's Footsteps"
2010Professor Paul Myles"Anaesthesia, Perioperative Medicine and Outcomes"
2012Professor Iain Robertson"Cultivating Creativity: Panacea or Placebo"
2014Dr Andrew Hartle"All Stations from Edgware Road to Rio: an Olympic Journey"

Two knights, seven professors, five presidents, eight anaesthetists, one surgeon one obstetrician, one lawyer, one environmentalist from London, Leeds, Dundee, Melbourne, Washington and Edinburgh (as at 2014).

©JDR Trustees 2014