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Blackburn, Sir Charles Bickerton (1874–1972)

by C. R. B. Blackburn

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Sir Charles Bickerton Blackburn (1874-1972), physician and university chancellor was born on 22 April 1874 at Greenhithe, Kent, England, second son of Rev. Thomas Blackburn (d.1912), and his first wife Jessie Ann, née Wood. Originally from Liverpool, his father was a noted lepidopterist and throughout his life made major contributions to the collection of the British Museum. In 1876 he took his family to Honolulu, where he was senior Anglican priest, and in 1881 moved to Port Lincoln, South Australia. Charles's mother died in 1885 and his father remarried—one of his half-brothers was A. S. Blackburn.

Educated at home, Charles was reading Virgil in the original at 7. In 1886 he went to the Collegiate School of St Peter, Adelaide, with several scholarships, then won another to the University of Adelaide (B.A., 1893), and in 1892 was awarded the John Howard Clark Scholarship in English literature. He went on to study medicine while working three nights a week as librarian at the Woodville Institute for £25 a year. When the medical school was closed in 1896 he moved to the University of Sydney (M.B., Ch.M., 1899; M.D., 1903); he topped each year of his course and gained his doctorate for a thesis on cystic disease of the liver and kidneys.

Blackburn began his long association with the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in 1899 as junior resident medical officer. He became senior resident next year and was medical superintendent in 1901-03. From 1903 when he set up in private practice at College Street, he was connected with the hospital as an honorary: assistant physician in 1903-11, physician in 1911-34 and as a consultant until 1972. As chancellor of the university, he was a member of its board from 1942 to 1964. He was also an honorary physician at the Royal Hospital for Women, Paddington, honorary pathologist at the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children (and a member of its board), and honorary consultant at Prince Henry Hospital. Later he moved his practice to Macquarie Street. On 3 August 1910 he married Vera Louise Le Patourel (1881-1936).

Lecturer in clinical medicine at the University of Sydney from 1913, Blackburn was at first dissuaded from enlisting by Professor (Sir) Thomas Anderson Stuart and taught medicine in 1916. However in August he embarked for Egypt with the rank of lieutenant-colonel in the Australian Army Medical Corps, and served in the 14th Australian General Hospital in Cairo. Twice mentioned in dispatches, he was appointed O.B.E. in January 1919 and returned to Australia later that year. He remained on the reserve and in 1924 chaired the Commonwealth royal commission on the assessment of war service disabilities. In World War II he served as lieutenant-colonel at the 113th Australian General Hospital, Concord.

A councillor of the New South Wales branch of the British (Australian) Medical Association in 1911-57, Blackburn was chairman of its ethics committee in 1921-72. As president in 1920-21 he supported the move to deport Dr M. M. Herz. Although neither rigid nor self-righteous, he never compromised on ethical matters. He published some twenty-five articles in scientific journals and gave the 1923 Lister Oration in Adelaide. In 1928 he represented the university at the celebrations of the Royal College of Physicians in London and at the Dublin Congress of the Royal Institute of Public Health (London).

In 1930-31 Blackburn was a founding councillor of the Association of Physicians of Australasia; its secretary in 1932, he was president in 1933-35 and in 1934 delivered the (Joseph) Bancroft Memorial Lecture and the Sir Richard Stawell Oration in Melbourne. Again president in 1937-38, he helped to found the Royal Australasian College of Physicians and was an original fellow and its first president. He was largely responsible for getting government and private donations to set up Sydney headquarters in its historic building in Macquarie Street. In his valedictory address he established and clearly defined the president's role as spokesman for the council and not for himself. He remained active in the college and attended scientific meetings until late in life. Knighted in 1936, he became an honorary F.R.C.P., Edinburgh, in 1938, and F.R.C.P., London, next year.

Blackburn devoted himself unstintingly to the University of Sydney. He was elected to its senate in 1919, lectured part time until 1934 and was dean of medicine in 1932-35. He became deputy chancellor in 1939 and chancellor in 1941. His term covered the period of the university's greatest expansion and he faced many problems: student numbers increased dramatically after World War II, academic staff were poorly paid, and the university was chronically short of funds until the report of the Murray Commission was acted upon in 1959. Meticulous in attendance at senate meetings, he missed only two (when overseas) in twenty-three years, and was a superb chairman. Scrupulously fair, he had an unusual ability to see, and express to others, the difference between personal opinions and principles, while 'his methods of ending futile meetings have become legendary, especially when executed with such exquisitive courtesy'; he spoke little but resolved deadlocks in a few words. Through the senate, he indirectly had considerable influence on developments.

When the occasion demanded, Blackburn spoke publicly and forcibly on important issues: he spoke out for the university in 1946 over the State government's non-renewal of a temporary annual government grant, and defended the university's appointment of Dr Dick Makinson whose political views were attacked by the press. He encouraged and successfully raised funds for the university's postgraduate medical committee, but suggested the government should financially assist students to take an arts degree before doing medicine or law. A witty after-dinner speaker, he gave innumerable addresses, and also attended, enjoyed and responded to toasts at functions of almost every university society and club, maintaining that 'if your cigar goes out … you have spoken too long'. He was a founder of the University Club and a member of the Union Club from 1903.

After twenty-three years, when aged 90, Blackburn retired as chancellor on 12 November 1964; he had conferred 31,194 out of the 48,853 degrees awarded by the university. He retired from practice next year. The senate appointed him chancellor emeritus and his work was commemorated by the Chancellor's Garden. He had been appointed K.C.M.G. in 1960 and had received honorary doctorates of science from the universities of New South Wales, Tasmania and Queensland, of literature from New England and Sydney, and laws from Melbourne and Western Australia.

Outside the university and his profession Blackburn served on the council of the Australian Red Cross Society and was made an honorary life member in 1960. He took great pride in his vegetable and flower growing, and was a keen beach and trout fisherman. Above all he enjoyed his weekend rounds of golf at Royal Sydney until his nineties and still liked to win: 'his putting remained deadly'. The friend of politicians, academics, diplomats, golfers and patients, in 1965 he was likened to 'Peter Pan' by Sir Robert Menzies.

Blackburn died suddenly, aged 98, at his Bellevue Hill home on 20 July 1972 and was cremated with Anglican rites. He was survived by one of his two sons, Charles Ruthven Bickerton, professor of medicine at the University of Sydney, and by a daughter Vera who married Philip, son of Sir Philip Game. His estate was valued for probate at $300,158.

His portraits by Joshua Smith and William Dargie are owned by the University of Sydney and another by F. W. Leist is held by the Royal Australasian College of Physicians.

Select Bibliography

  • Medical Journal of Australia, 21 Feb, 28 Mar 1931, 27 Feb 1937, 12 Nov, 10, 31 Dec 1938, 13 Oct 1964, 21 July 1973
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 19 June 1920, 27 Aug 1941, 2 Mar 1943, 27, 30 May 1946, 2 Dec 1950, 7 June 1952, 13 June 1956, 29 Mar, 22 Nov 1960, 10 Apr 1963, 26 Apr, 25 Oct 1964
  • Royal Australasian College of Physicians Archives (Sydney)
  • University of Sydney Archives
  • family papers (privately held).

Citation details

C. R. B. Blackburn, 'Blackburn, Sir Charles Bickerton (1874–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/blackburn-sir-charles-bickerton-5257/text8859, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 28 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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