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Pitney, William Robert (1921–1986)

by John Carmody

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

William Robert Pitney (1921-1986), haematologist and medical educator, was born on 2 December 1921 at West Ealing, London, fourth child of Thomas George Pitney, motor-body builder, and his Irish wife Elizabeth, née Kennedy. The family migrated to Australia in late 1926. Educated at St Brendan’s Convent School, Flemington, Melbourne, St Joseph’s Christian Brothers’ College, North Melbourne, and St Kevin’s College, Toorak, Pitney won a ‘free place’ university scholarship. He studied medicine in a war-shortened five-year course at the University of Melbourne (MB, BS, 1943; MD, 1948). Achieving first-class honours in the MB, he won the Margaret Ryan scholarship in medicine and the Jamieson prize for clinical medicine.

In 1943-44 Pitney was a resident medical officer at St Vincent’s Hospital, Fitzroy. A member of the Melbourne University Rifles from October 1941, he was commissioned as a flight lieutenant in the Royal Australian Air Force Reserve on 10 June 1943. He moved to the Active List in May 1945 and served for a year at Point Cook, Victoria. His appointment was terminated on 6 December 1946 but he was employed part time in the Citizen Air Force Reserve in 1949-50.

In 1947 Pitney moved to the Royal Hobart Hospital as a pathology registrar; during his three years there he was admitted as a member (1948) of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians (fellow, 1959). In 1951 he took up a post as registrar and research assistant in the haematology department under (Professor Sir) John V. Dacie in the Postgraduate Medical School of London at Hammersmith Hospital, where his research career began with two notable successes. He co-authored the now classical paper that characterised the clotting disorder ‘Christmas Disease’, caused by a gene-induced deficiency of Factor IX, as distinct from haemophilia (British Medical Journal, 1952, vol 2, pp 1378-82). A few years later he and his expatriate Australian colleague Neil Hicks developed and published a thromboplastin-generation screening test, which determined the integrity of the earliest stages of the clotting process and which remained a standard diagnostic procedure for decades (British Journal of Haematology, vol 3, issue 2, 1957, pp 227-37). In between he had spent two years (1952-54) at the department of medicine of the University of Louisville, Kentucky, working with Professor Marion Beard on vitamin B12 and folate metabolism; they produced several papers together. Pitney returned to Hammersmith in 1955 as an assistant-lecturer. On 11 February 1956 he married Nadine Berger, a physicist, at St James’s Catholic Church, Spanish Place, London.

That year Pitney started at the Royal Perth Hospital, Western Australia, as its first full-time haematologist. A foundation member (1956) of the (Royal) College of Pathologists of Australia, he was one of the quartet who formed (1961) the Haematology Society of Australia, remaining on its council until 1967. He was a member of the board of censors of the CPA from 1962 and chief examiner in haematology from 1973 to 1977.

Pitney moved to Sydney in 1962 to join the fledgling faculty of medicine at the University of New South Wales—the first holder of an academic appointment in haematology in Australia—as associate-professor of pathology (haematology) at Prince Henry Hospital, Little Bay. His colleague R. J. Walsh had research interests in the Territory of Papua and New Guinea; unsurprisingly, Pitney developed significant projects in tropical anaemia and splenomegaly in that country. The peripatetic nature of his professional life persisted when, in 1967, he returned to Hammersmith as reader in Dacie’s department and honorary director of the Wellcome research laboratory, department of haematology, PGMS.

Pitney’s links with various Australian professional bodies were enthusiastically renewed when, in 1970, he returned to Sydney and the foundation chair of medicine at St George Hospital, attached to the University of New South Wales. The PGMS noted that ‘he will leave to our great regret’. Pitney was a charter member (1969) of the International Society on Thrombosis and Haemostasis. He was a member of the first joint specialist accreditation committee—in haematology—of the RACP and the RCPA, which co-operatively sought to obviate unconstructive rivalry between the educational programs of those two colleges. The two programs had long been a problem for aspiring specialist physicians, especially in the field of haematology, with its dual diagnostic and clinical aspects. He was a long-term member of the editorial board of the CPA journal, Pathology, as well as of the RACP journal, Australasian Annals of Medicine (1965-67).

From 1970 Pitney’s major contribution to medicine was in building St George from what has been described as a humble district hospital into a significant teaching hospital. He did this by appointing first-class physicians who were dedicated to both research and teaching such that, very soon, St George was the hospital where medical students most wanted to be located. Particularly interested in the haematological side effects of therapeutic agents (an interest dating from his earliest years at Hammersmith), he was regarded as a ‘founding-father’ of the Australian and New Zealand Lymphoma Group, which was first convened in Canberra in 1973.

Pitney’s internationalism never deserted him. He was (with Walsh) joint secretary-general for the XIth congresses of the International Society of Haematology and the International Society of Blood Transfusion (Sydney, 1966) and, though mortally ill with a rare Merkel cell malignancy, served as president of the XXIst congress of ISH in Sydney in 1986.

In 1982 Pitney succeeded Walsh as dean of the faculty of medicine at the University of New South Wales, a position that he held until his retirement in late 1985. It was hardly a congenial time for a man of Pitney’s integrity and grace. His lack of guile and his belief that others shared his values did not equip him to cope well with the thrusting, often abrasive and not always honourable style of some politicians and academic officials. Nevertheless, the university awarded him an honorary doctorate of medicine early in 1986.

Pitney was appointed AO in 1984. Survived by his wife and their daughter and three sons, he died on 24 December 1986 at Kogarah and was buried in the Catholic section of Northern Suburbs cemetery. A medical colleague described him thus: ‘Bob was a living model for many of his students, a mentor for his registrars, a good doctor for his patients and an exemplary human being for all those who knew him’. The Haematology Society of Australia established the Robert Pitney travelling fellowship in his honour.

Select Bibliography

  • R. E. Sage, An Antipodean’s History of Haematology (2003)
  • J. C. Wiseman and R. J. Mulhearn (eds), Roll of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, vol 2 (1994)
  • Pathology, vol 19, no 4, 1987, p 433
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 6 Apr 1987, p 386
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27 Dec 1986, p 5
  • B884, item V158189, A9300, item PITNEY W R (National Archives of Australia)
  • Archives of the Royal College of Pathologists of Australasia
  • Archives of the Royal Postgraduate Medical School (Imperial College, London)
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Carmody, 'Pitney, William Robert (1921–1986)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/pitney-william-robert-15838/text27037, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 24 September 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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