The Royal Children’s Hospital is mourning the loss of one of its finest leaders, Dr Robert (Bob) Dickens. A passionate advocate, a strong financial and lobbying supporter, a guru for the toughest medical, medico-legal and political issues, Bob shared a genuine bond with and love of his patients and a profound respect and admiration for their parents.
After graduating MBBS in 1962 and completing a Fellowship in surgery Bob Dickens sought work at the Royal Children’s Hospital (RCH) where he first worked as the inaugural registrar in paediatric orthopaedics. The first Victorian orthopaedic surgeon to embark on post-graduate training in both the UK and the US, Bob Dickens pursued fellowships at the Royal National Orthopaedic in London, Oswestry in Wales, and in Pittsburgh where his involvement in basic research informed his later advocacy of laboratory access for orthopaedic research at RCH.
He returned to the RCH in 1972, bringing his expertise in the care of children’s spinal conditions to join Professor Peter Williams AO (MBBS 1946), Dr Malcolm Menelaus (MBBS 1954, MD 1971) and Dr William Doig (MBBS 1946): the team that put the hospital at the global forefront of paediatric orthopaedics. Not just a gifted surgeon, Bob was also a master clinician. Colleagues from within Victoria, around Australia and overseas, regularly sought his advice on diagnostic and management conundrums.
Together with Dr Ian Torode (MBBS 1973), Bob was instrumental in bringing innovations in spinal instrumentation to the RCH – a huge benefit in the care of adolescents with scoliosis. He remained interested and engaged with the Scoliosis Clinic long after his retirement, maintaining an encyclopaedic memory of rare conditions and loving interaction with new trainees.
Director of Orthopaedics at RCH from 1990-98, Bob brought a fine intellect, a passion for looking after children, and a larrikin sense of humour to the role. Although he was not always in agreement with hospital administration and bureaucracy (in many of Bob’s encounters it was a matter of an irresistible force shifting an immovable object) his style was always understated. A man of few words, who never wanted to be in the limelight, Bob preferred to work behind the scenes, where he was incredibly effective. A true team player and gentleman.
Bob’s deep and abiding commitment to support children with disabilities and their families, was driven both by his own moral values and sense of justice, as well as his lived experience as a parent. He practised family-centred care, multidisciplinary teamwork and research-informed practice long before the terms entered the lexicon of contemporary medicine and healthcare.
After retiring early from surgery due to an eye condition, Bob maintained a clinical and medico-legal practice and was called upon many times for the conduct of delicate reviews and for the Medical Defence Association of Victoria. His insights and wisdom continued to create legends, such as the case of a twelve-year-old boy with recurrent abscesses in his foot.
During a morning clinical case conference, discussion revolved around whether it might be a tuberculous infection, or even a tumour. From the back of the room came the question, ‘Where did he spend his last holiday?’ The answer was ‘Cairns, Far North Queensland’. ‘That’s a Palm Thorn in the sole of his foot on the MRI scan’ observed Bob, and so a simple operation cured a problem that had persisted for months.
In 2004, Bob, Professor Dinah Reddihough AO (MD 2001), Dr Bruce Bonyhady AM (LLD 2014) and Katie O’Callaghan developed a vision for RCH to become a leader in developmental disability research, and soon SOLVE was born. Since then, more than $15 million has been raised through philanthropy to fund three Chairs and numerous fellowships and the NHMRC has invested $5 million in two Centres for Research Excellence. This funding has underwritten an ever-increasing record of research achievement and a team of over 70 researchers and clinicians.
The future of developmental medicine and orthopaedic research in Melbourne is thus guaranteed, much of it due to Bob’s leadership, example and personal efforts in securing long-term funding. Dr Bob Dickens’ legacy will long be remembered for all that he has done. His name will also live on as the result of the continuing transformative philanthropy of Pamela Galli in a soon to be established leadership position and fellowship program in paediatric orthopaedics, the design of which was guided by Bob’s wisdom and intellect during his final weeks.
Written by Professor Bruce Bonyhady AM (LLD 2014), Professor Emeritus Glenn Bowes AO and Professor Kerr Graham.