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Grieve, Sir Herbert Ronald Robinson (1896–1982)

by James Gillespie

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Sir Herbert Ronald Robinson Grieve (1896-1982), medical practitioner, was born on 6 June 1896 at Vaucluse, Sydney, third child of Gideon James Grieve, a Scottish clerk who was later a lieutenant of the Black Watch, and his Queensland-born wife Julia Australia, née Robinson. Gideon was killed in 1900 at Paardeberg during the South African War. Ronald attended Sydney Grammar School and later served as president (1958-60) of the Old Sydneians’ Union. Although he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 27 June 1918 he was not called up before the war ended. He studied medicine at the University of Sydney (MB, Ch.M., 1920). After a year at Newcastle Hospital he worked as a resident at Manchester Royal Infirmary, England, in 1922. Returning to Australia the following year, he set up in general practice at Undercliffe (Earlwood), Sydney.

Interested in conservative politics, Grieve belonged to the National Association of New South Wales and then became a member of the interim management committee of the United Australia Party. He was appointed to the Legislative Council in 1932 by the Stevens government but lost his seat in the (indirect) election of 1934. A photograph from the early 1930s shows a serious man, with his hair already greying. He served on the UAP council from 1932 to 1942.

Grieve was hostile to government health benefits schemes that appeared to threaten medical autonomy. Elected to the State council of the British Medical Association in 1937, he opposed the Lyons government’s scheme of national health insurance. In June 1938 he represented New South Wales general practitioners, conveying their intransigence to the federal council and the more moderate Victorian branch. After the failure of Lyons to implement his scheme, Grieve remained a member of the State council until 1956 and served on the BMA’s medical assurance committee from 1938 to 1945. He was branch president (1947-48) at the height of the profession’s battle against the Chifley government’s plans for pharmaceutical and national medical benefits schemes. In 1947-56 he represented New South Wales on the federal council.

Although Grieve was an architect of the State branch’s hostility towards national medical benefit schemes, he recognised that the profession would have to craft an alternative. In 1943 he persuaded the New South Wales branch to establish a fund that reimbursed its subscribers’ medical bills on a fee-for-service basis. The Medical Benefits Fund of New South Wales (later, of Australia Ltd), with Grieve as president (1946-75), met with derision from other branches of the BMA, especially Victoria, which saw it as a quixotic dream. On Grieve’s urging, the New South Wales branch persisted, although the MBF lost large amounts and had a low subscriber base. The BMA in New South Wales provided capital to keep it afloat. When the minister for health, Sir Earle Page, proposed to use friendly societies as the agents for a capitation-based health scheme, the BMA, again led by New South Wales, launched boycotts until the friendly societies shifted to a fee-for-service model. The government acquiesced. Grieve helped to shape other aspects of Page’s national health scheme, serving on the Federal pensioner medical services committee of inquiry.

Government subsidies ended the financial travails of the MBF and Grieve led its consolidation as Australia’s largest private health fund. He helped to foster private health funds elsewhere in Australia, serving as president of the Blue Cross Association of Australia and chairman of the Voluntary Health Insurance Council of Australia. After assisting in drafting the constitution for the International Federation of Voluntary Health Service Funds, he was elected its first president (1968-70). He had been a member (1941-63) of the Medical Board of New South Wales. He retired from his Earlwood practice in 1981.

Grieve had married Helen Graham MacKenzie, a Scottish nurse, on 14 November 1924 at St Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Sydney; they divorced in 1945. On 7 December that year at Scots Presbyterian Church, Sydney, he married Florence Ross Timpson, an army nurse who was born in England; she died in 1969. He married Margaret Du-Vé, a 52-year-old secretary, on 12 February 1972 at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church, Earlwood. A complex character, he leavened his high-minded principles and determination with a passion for horse-racing, owning horses with his friend Sid Webb, QC, and belonging to the Australian Jockey Club. He was knighted in 1958 and elected a fellow of the Australian Medical Association in 1968. Survived by his wife and a son and the younger daughter of his first marriage, Sir Ronald died on 1 July 1982 at Long Jetty and was buried in the Catholic section of South Head cemetery. He had supported the Little Sisters of the Poor, Randwick, for many years.

Select Bibliography

  • J. A. Gillespie, The Price of Health (1991)
  • J. Murray, Lifework (1997)
  • United Australia Review, 21 Oct 1932, p 16
  • Medical Journal of Australai, 8 Jan 1983, p 48
  • obituary notes (MBF archives, Sydney).

Citation details

James Gillespie, 'Grieve, Sir Herbert Ronald Robinson (1896–1982)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/grieve-sir-herbert-ronald-robinson-12567/text22627, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 17 December 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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