Dengate Robert Armstrong died suddenly at his home at Whangarei Heads on 4 April 1986. Born into a family of English working class immigrants on 4 August 1920 in Drouin Victoria, he inherited the life-long pacifism of his father. He attended Palmerston North Primary and Boys' High, before entering Otago Medical School. His athletic skills led to a university blue in boxing and he was twice runner-up for the welterweight boxing title.
When I was a GP in Foxton in 1943, I met Bob as a young medical student who frequently spent his holidays there. He made it clear to me then that his left-of-centre liberalism would be maintained life-long. His philosophy was indeed followed to the end and was chronicled in his political writing. In 1940, as a first year student, he roomed with Alistair Buist and they remained close friends. They were both involved in political debating and wrote for the university paper Critic, a heavily censored issue of which they once printed with blank pages. He instigated the group that came to be known as the John Reid Society which presented a socialist view at the University during the turbulent war years. It was during this time that he met fellow medical student and future wife Phyl Stockdill who also worked on Critic. Bob graduated MB ChB in 1946 and married a year later.
Three years as house-surgeon in Masterton were followed by six months as medical registrar in Rotorua. In 1950 Alistair Buist invited him to join his practice as a partner in Hawera. But routine films revealed he had chest troubles and he opted for part-time work at Hawera Hospital. Phyl became a full-time partner in the practice instead, which enabled him to carry on with a diminished workload. He joined the practice in 1954 and continued to work part-time in several hospitals as a physician, without the customary higher qualification. In the course of his work at Hawera's Calvary Hospital he met Sir Charles Burns who recognised Bob's skills and became a steady friend. Sir Charles visited Hawera many times, walking the wards with Bob, enjoying, and at the same time admiring, the quality of his work. Sponsored by Sir Charles and Dr Peter Powles, he sat the membership examination in 1962 and was deservedly admitted to The Royal Australasian College of Physicians. He was made a fellow of the College in 1970.
In 1973, he fitted a visit to China into his strenuous life and embarked on many lecturing commitments on his return, dealing with his experiences there. The following year he suffered his first attack of angina which did not hinder him in carrying out his duties. Even before his attack Bob was particularly interested in the treatment of heart disease, pioneering the walking treatment of heart patients in Hawera. What came to be called 'Bob's Army' can still be seen walking the town's streets. Bob could not tolerate working at half speed and this led to a premature and abrupt retirement in June 1979.
He and his family had acquired an enchanting house on the shores of Whangarei Heads and Bob could now enjoy his garden, swimming, boating, fishing and building a quite monumental rock wall on the beach. Over the years he enjoyed music and literature, kept in close touch with his children, two sons and two daughters and was a wonderful companion to Phyl. It is difficult or perhaps impossible to fit Bob into any conventional mould but the memory of this remarkable man is treasured by friends and patients and by his family. Bob remained a rebel all his life, never relinquishing his leftist politics. He was always forthright, incisive and incapable of tolerating humbug or cant. To anyone he accepted as a friend he revealed a very warm and generous personality. He had the reputation of being a humanitarian and showed a lasting concern for those in his care. He became an enthusiastic member of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War after having helped to start a peace group in Hawera in the 1950s.
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