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Robertson, Edward Graeme (1903–1975)

by Mary Ryllis Clark

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Edward Graeme Robertson (1903-1975), neurologist and conservationist, was born on 20 October 1903 at Footscray, Melbourne, fifth child of Victorian-born parents John Robertson, draper, and his wife Cecilia Elizabeth, née Hooper. Educated at Scotch College and the University of Melbourne (M.B., B.S., 1927; M.D., 1930), Graeme became a resident medical officer and registrar at (Royal) Melbourne Hospital. In 1930 he travelled to London where he worked and studied at the National Hospital for Diseases of the Nervous System, Queen Square. Returning home in 1934, he began to establish himself as a leading neurologist. On 29 August 1935 at Scots Church, Melbourne, he married with Presbyterian forms Mildred Jane Duce (d.1971), a nurse.

While maintaining his private practice, Robertson accepted appointments as honorary neurologist to four hospitals: the (Royal) Victorian Eye and Ear (1940), the Royal Melbourne (1944), the (Royal) Children's (1944) and the (Royal) Women's (1949). He was also a consultant to the Tasmanian Department of Public Health and the Royal Australian Navy. A foundation fellow (1938) and vice-president (1962) of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, he played a leading role in forming the Australian Association of Neurologists (1950)—of which he was president (1958)—and the Asian and Oceanian Association of Neurologists (1962). Both the Association of British Neurologists and the American Neurological Association accorded him honorary membership.

Robertson was an authority on the radiological examination of the brain. He published three scientific monographs, Encephalography (Melbourne, 1941), Further Studies in Encephalography (1946) and Pneumoencephalography (Springfield, Illinois, United States of America, 1957), and sixty-six scientific articles. He 'saw in the nervous system a complexity reduced to a perfection of orderliness which fascinated him'.

Interested in 'architecture and furniture and allied things of beauty', and concerned about the destruction of fine nineteenth-century buildings in the name of 'progress', Robertson helped to found the Victorian branch of the National Trust of Australia in 1956. He was a keen photographer who often rose at dawn to take his shots. The play of light on the detail of buildings captivated him and fired his passion for decorative cast iron. Robertson was appalled that councils throughout Victoria were ordering the destruction of cast-iron verandahs in the 1950s and 1960s. His first non-medical book, Victorian Heritage (Melbourne, 1960), captured in words and black-and-white photographs the beauty of the State's ironwork. The book sold out. It helped to apply a brake to what he called 'vandalism' committed by those in authority.

Robertson's subsequent books included Sydney Lace (1962), Early Houses of Northern Tasmania (with Edith Craig, 1964), Ornamental Cast Iron in Melbourne (1967), Early Buildings of Southern Tasmania (1970), Adelaide Lace (1973) and Carlton (1974). His daughter Joan co-authored his last books, Parkville (1975) and Cast Iron Decoration: A World Survey (1977). The Royal Australian Institute of Architects commented: 'by direct and indirect means', Dr Robertson revealed ornamental cast iron 'to thousands of people, raised it to the status of an art form worthy of serious study and influenced the preservation of much of what survives'. In 1969 he became founding chairman of the National Trust's committee for cast iron. Examples that he had gathered over many years formed the nucleus of the trust's collection. It remains in storage, awaiting the fulfilment of his dream that it will be housed in a museum dedicated to cast iron.

In 1950 Robertson had been a founding member of the Society of Collectors, inaugurated by (Sir) Joseph Burke. His special areas of interest were Australiana, and antique English and early colonial furniture. One of his prize possessions was a magnificent desk purchased from Sir Keith Murdoch. With Clifford Craig and Kevin Fahy, he wrote Early Colonial Furniture in New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land (1972). Robertson travelled extensively. While visiting San Francisco, U.S.A., in 1961, he had learned that one of the world's remaining wrought-iron ships, Rona, lay berthed at Melbourne. He persuaded the Victorian branch of the National Trust to buy the hulk and chaired (from 1968) the committee which oversaw its restoration under the barque's former name, Polly Woodside.

To friends and colleagues, Robertson was a lovable eccentric whose perfectionism verged on the obsessional. In July 1975, although seriously ill with cancer, he attended a meeting of the National Trust's council to argue for the acquisition of an appropriate site for the Polly Woodside. Survived by his son and daughter, he died on Christmas Day 1975 at Toorak and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Medical Journal of Australia, 24 July 1976, p 147
  • Proceedings of the Australian Association of Neurologists, 13, 1976, p 1
  • private information.

Citation details

Mary Ryllis Clark, 'Robertson, Edward Graeme (1903–1975)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/robertson-edward-graeme-11541/text20593, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 1 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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