Charles Bickerton Blackburn was born on 22 April 1874, in the Parish of Greenhithe in Kent, the second son of Archdeacon Thomas Blackburn, an Anglican priest. Soon afterwards the family moved to Hawaii, then British territory, where Charles spent the first seven years of his life. The family then moved to Woodville, near Adelaide. This became their final home, and the two sons attended St Peter's Collegiate School in Adelaide, where Charles at once distinguished himself.
Enrolling as an undergraduate at the University of Adelaide, he became a BA in 1893, at the age of 19, a significant omen of future achievement. He then entered the faculty of medicine in the same University. In 1895, as he was about to commence his clinical training, an academic dispute interrupted the progress of his class. He applied to transfer to the medical school of the University of Sydney and was accepted. He called on the dean, Professor Anderson Stuart, who told him what 'not' to do in his medical school, but it was not long before he was caught playing cricket in one of the corridors and fined one pound!
He graduated with honours, top of the year in 1899 (when only 11 out of 23 survived), and was appointed to the resident staff of the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. Two years later, he was the medical superintendent of this institution. His hospital duties did not prevent him preparing a thesis for his MD degree which was awarded in 1903. His ability was not lost on Anderson Stuart, who was also chairman of the hospital board, and in 1903, he was appointed honorary assistant physician.
Blackburn commenced practice at 229 Macquarie Street, Sydney, and attended outpatients at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, where he would be required to undertake student teaching, although not yet an official medical tutor. Six years later he married Vera Le Patourel. They had three children. The eldest son was accidentally killed. The second son, now Emeritus Professor Charles Ruthven Blackburn, later became chairman of Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and a daughter, now Mrs PM Game, lives in England.
He became a full honorary physician with inpatient responsibility and a full teaching load in 1911, and continued these duties until his retirement from the active staff in 1934. He then remained an honorary consultant physician till his death 38 years later. He was also an honorary consultant to the Prince Henry Hospital for many years.
Blackburn enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force in World War I, and in 1916, was appointed pathologist to the 14th Australian General Hospital (AGH) in Egypt. His wide clinical knowledge ensured that he was also in demand as a consultant. He was awarded the Order of the British Empire, and twice mentioned in dispatches. In the Second World War he remained in Australia, but resumed his rank of lieutenant-colonel and acted as a senior consultant at 113 AGH, Concord.
From 1932 to 1935, Dr Blackburn was dean of the faculty of medicine at the University of Sydney. This post was additional to his other commitments at Prince Alfred Hospital and at the NSW branch of the British Medical Association, where he had been elected a councillor in 1910, and became president in 1920 to 1921. He subsequently remained a councillor for almost 40 years, as well as an active member and chairman of the ethics committee, where his long experience was extremely valuable. He was elected a Fellow of the Australian Medical Association in 1964, and life vice-president of the branch. He attended all council meetings conscientiously, and rarely spoke until his opinion was requested. Often he would take it upon himself to soothe troubled waters, something at which he excelled. No one would have considered for a moment replacing him as chairman of the ethics committee. He was created a Knight Bachelor in 1936, and Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George in 1960.
He had been elected to the University of Sydney senate in 1919, and served as a Fellow for the next 45 years. He held office as Chancellor from 1941 to 1964, and as Chancellor Emeritus by resolution of the senate from March 1965, until his death. The appointment of Chancellor Emeritus, we are told, gave him the greatest satisfaction. In November 1965, he was awarded the degree of Doctor of Letters ('honoris causa') in recognition of his service to the University of Sydney. During his chancellorship he is said to have conferred degrees on 31,000 students.
Finally, one of his greatest achievements was his role as the first president of The Royal Australasian College of Physicians. He gave a memorable address at the inaugural ceremony held with due pomp in the Great Hall of the University of Sydney in the presence of many distinguished guests, including representatives of overseas colleges. He concluded by epitomising what he considered to be the essential objective of the College as 'fostering facilities for young graduates to acquire advanced knowledge of medicine.'
Charles would never permit anyone to harbour the impression that he alone had been responsible for the creation of the College. He had not been one of the prime movers of the concept. The College was the product of many minds and hands, from all parts of Australia and New Zealand. It was the offspring of the Association of Physicians, and Charles was, as a very senior and popular member, an eminently suitable and capable candidate for the inaugural presidency. He took on the task with great zeal and worked hard to guide the fledgling College in its formative days. He was largely responsible for obtaining the funds needed to buy a suitable building for the College headquarters and his own home became the meeting place for the executive committee before 145 Macquarie Street was available for occupation. The College is fortunate that he was fit, available, and willing, to take the wheel at that vital phase.
In retrospect Adelaide lost, and Sydney gained, much when he changed medical schools. He was a remarkable and durable leader with the ability to represent his profession with dignity, dedication and charm. His preference for a 'front seat' was an asset, and his record term as chancellor satisfied his needs in this respect, as well as those of his profession. His ability to flatter was a useful attribute. He described me as 'One of the best residents I have had'! I lost some of my joy when several others told me they had been granted identical praise.
Comments such as the following were made at his funeral; 'He represented the University with distinction in community affairs, both in the style and content of his public speeches. He was regarded with quite remarkable affection', said Professor BR Williams, vice-chancellor of the University of Sydney. 'Sir Charles has been one of the most remarkable phenomena of his age, not only in medicine but in society at large. He was a man of extraordinary dignity' said the late Professor David Maddison, then dean of the medical faculty, University of Sydney. Dr N Larkins, then secretary of the NSW branch of the Australian Medical Association, described him as a 'great patrician, and undoubtedly the doyen of the medical profession in NSW'. Appropriately his name has been given to the Blackburn Pavilion at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, and to the Blackburn Building which houses much of the medical faculty within the University.
His chief distractions were his garden and his golf. He was slightly better at the former, but he liked winning at the latter, and shamelessly demanded a variable handicap with each opponent! He never had to wait at the first tee at The Royal Sydney Golf Club, for the starter would call his name as soon as he appeared. Those of us fortunate enough to have been associated with him in one way or another, were privileged to learn, not so much the science of medicine, as bedside care, clinical evaluation, encouragement of our fellow mortals and relief of their anxieties and pain. His success as a physician was the result of intelligent conservatism plus shrewd individual analysis, rather than scientific originality. He was not a braggart – if he did evince a preference for being in the front row, he deserved it.
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