The death of Sir Robert Aitken brought to a close the life of one of the College’s most distinguished Fellows and one of New Zealand’s greatest medical graduates.
Robert Aitken was born in Wyndham, Otago, where his father James Aitken was a Presbyterian Minister who later became Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in New Zealand. Robert’s mother was Mary Vasey née Ferguson, daughter of a naval engineer.
He was educated at Gisborne High School and Otago University graduating in 1923. He was a brilliant student and in his senior years lectured in osteology and was a junior demonstrator in anatomy. He had all round ability and represented Otago at hockey. He was awarded a medical travelling scholarship and in his houseman year at Dunedin Hospital he became a Rhodes Scholar. This took him away from New Zealand to return only relatively briefly years later.
He worked his way as a ship’s doctor to Britain, where at Balliol College Oxford, he completed his PhD in respiratory physiology. In time he was followed to Balliol by his brother, son, nephew and grandson. From research and house physician posts at London Hospital he progressed to become first assistant to the Medical Unit and in 1935 he was appointed Reader in Medicine at the Postgraduate Medical School. In 1939 came a further step in an already outstanding clinical career when he became Regius Professor of Medicine in the University of Aberdeen, a post he held until 1948.
From that year onwards Robert Aitken’s academic involvement became mainly administrative. He came back to New Zealand as Vice Chancellor of Otago University and during his time there he played a part with his friend (Sir) Douglas Robb in the establishment of the Auckland Medical School.
In 1953 he returned to England on his appointment as Vice Chancellor of the University of Birmingham where he remained until his retirement in 1968. His time in Birmingham was marked by a considerable expansion of the University but as always his activities were widely spread. He was Chairman of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre for 12 years from 1962 and was involved with the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford and the Medical School at the University of Rhodesia, linked with Birmingham.
After his second retirement he served as part-time Chairman of the University Grants Committee and in 1967 was Deputy Lieutenant of the County of Warwickshire. From 1955 to 1958 he was vice chairman of the British Commonwealth Universities Association and he received many honorary degrees from around the world including Dalhousie, Melbourne, Punjab, McGill, Pennsylvania, Aberdeen, Newfoundland, Leicester, and Liverpool.
In 1929 Robert Aitken married Margaret Gwendoline Kane from a legal family. She was an Otago graduate, a gifted artist and pianist who made her own contribution to university life. Lady Aitken predeceased her husband. They are survived by a son and two daughters, one of whom is a physician.
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