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Robert Andrew (Bob) Douglas (1915–1998)

by Brian Reid

This article was published online in 2023

Robert Andrew Douglas (1915–1998), physician, was born on 26 March 1915 at Townsville, Queensland, eldest of five children of Queensland-born parents Robert Johnstone Douglas, barrister, and his wife Annie Alice May, née Ball. His father was later the Northern judge (1923–53), based at Townsville, of the Supreme Court of Queensland and his grandfather John Douglas had been premier of Queensland (1877–79). His mother was the daughter of the Townsville pioneers Andrew and Rose Ball, who built the heritage-listed house Rosebank, his childhood home. Bob attended St Joseph’s Convent School, Mundingburra, and, in Brisbane, Nudgee College (1929–33), before studying at the University of Melbourne (MB, BS, 1939), where he resided in Newman College and graduated with honours in surgery, medicine, and obstetrics and gynaecology.

In 1940 Douglas took up a resident medical officer (RMO) position at Brisbane General Hospital (BGH). He had served part time (1934–37) in the Melbourne University Rifles, Citizen Military Forces, and, World War II having broken out, joined the Reserve of Officers on 17 April 1940 as an honorary captain in the Australian Army Medical Corps. From December he held the substantive rank in full-time CMF postings in Brisbane and on Thursday Island. Transferring to the Australian Imperial Force in August 1941, he served in the Middle East from November as medical officer of several units, including the 2/8th Field Regiment, Royal Australian Artillery (July 1942–January 1943) in Egypt, returning to Australia in January 1943. He was the medical officer of the 2/12th Field Regiment, RAA, in Papua and New Guinea (August 1943–February 1944), and, promoted to major (July 1944), a company commander in the 2/11th Field Ambulance on Tarakan Island, Borneo, Netherlands East Indies (Indonesia), from May to December 1945. Back in Australia, he commanded the 2nd Australian Women’s Hospital, Yeronga, Brisbane, in 1946, reverting to the reserve on 24 October. Between 1947 and 1950 he occupied an RMO post at the Repatriation General Hospital, Heidelberg, Melbourne. He also served part time (1948–50) in the CMF with the 6th Field Ambulance.

On 8 September 1949 at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne, Douglas married Barbara Buzolich, née Shaw, a widowed nurse. He qualified for membership of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP) in 1950 and of the Royal College of Physicians (RCP), London, in 1952, while undertaking postgraduate study in England. During these formative years, he developed an abiding interest in infectious diseases. At the BGH his medical ward had been dominated by typhus fever and tuberculosis. In the Middle East he was for a time in charge of a malaria squad, with vector control an important endeavour. He also undertook spleen surveys in local children. In New Guinea and Borneo, managing malaria was a major part of his job. He succumbed to the disease himself in 1944 in what was, for the period, a rite of passage for aspiring infectious-disease physicians. At training camps on the Atherton Tableland, where scrub typhus was important, he was involved in mapping areas infested with trombiculid mites, vectors for the infection.

Douglas returned to Townsville in 1952 and established a practice as a physician. The same year he was appointed as consultant physician to the recently relocated and enlarged Townsville General Hospital (TGH). He built up its medical department and, through his competence and growing reputation, attracted a steady stream of able medical registrars. In 1961, with E. D. Johnston, he published a significant paper furthering understanding of the association of aspirin ingestion with chronic gastric ulcer. Infectious diseases remained important to him, as sufferers occupied substantial numbers of beds in his department. Through his collaboration with the pathologist Ron Rimington, the first cases of the severe infection melioidosis, in Townsville and Australia, had been described in 1960. Douglas would retain his TGH consultancy until 1980. He was also a visiting consultant (1952–60) to the Cairns Base Hospital.

A member of the Townsville and District University Society, formed in 1958, Douglas took part in the movement to establish the University College of Townsville (1961). When, in 1970, the college became the independent James Cook University (of North Queensland to 1997) (JCU), he joined the convocation, chairing it in 1979 and 1980 and remaining on the committee until 1984. He was also involved with the Foundation for Australian Literary Studies, based at the JCU, and was on its board of directors from 1980 to 1989 (chairman 1983–85). Among publications on Australian medical history, he wrote a sensitive article, in the Medical Journal of Australia (1977), on the life of Anton Breinl and his directorship (1909–20) of the Australian Institute of Tropical Medicine at Townsville; the work conveyed Breinl’s love of North Queensland and his deep interest in infectious diseases, values shared by its author. The institute had been moved in 1930 to the University of Sydney. In 1988 Douglas was able to celebrate its return, in part, with the opening of the JCU’s Anton Breinl Centre for Tropical Health and Medicine. He was a founding member (1973) and chairman (1979–85) of the Townsville branch of the National Trust of Queensland and a life member (1993) of the parent organisation.

Douglas was appointed AM (1984) and was elected to fellowships of the RACP (1967), RCP (1978), Australasian College of Tropical Medicine (1991), and Australian Medical Association (1989). Keith Harveyson described him as ‘a man of great personal elegance, quietly spoken, unassuming, yet warm, dignified and thoughtful’ (Jaumees 2001, 126). He died on 12 April 1998 at Townsville and was buried in Belgian Gardens lawn cemetery. His wife and their sons Robert and Sholto and daughters Catroina, Barbara, and Sarah survived him. The Townsville suburb of Douglas had been named in 1968 in honour of distinguished members of his family’s previous two generations in Queensland. The name, however, could be considered a memorial to him as well, being the site of the JCU and (from 2001) the TGH: the two institutions to which he had devoted much of his working life.

Research edited by Darryl Bennet

Select Bibliography

  • Douglas, Robert. ‘The North Queensland Fevers.’ In Outback Medicine: Some Vignettes of Pioneering Medicine, edited by John Pearn, 93–114. Brisbane: Amphion Press and Department of Child Health, University of Queensland, Royal Children’s Hospital, 1994
  • Douglas, Robert Andrew. Battles Long Ago: Wartime Letters from Dr Robert Andrew Douglas to His Parents. Townsville, Qld: Douglas family, 1999
  • Gibson-Wilde, Dorothy. ‘Country Doctor’s Ulcer Research Helped Many.’ Australian, 26 May 1998, 15
  • Jaumees, Kay, comp. History of Townsville General Hospital 1866–2001. Townsville, Qld: Townsville General Hospital, 2001
  • National Archives of Australia. B2458, 3101802
  • Queensland State Archives. Item ID ITM313704 (Minutes–Queensland Place Names Committee)

Citation details

Brian Reid, 'Douglas, Robert Andrew (Bob) (1915–1998)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/douglas-robert-andrew-bob-29923/text37043, published online 2023, accessed online 22 February 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Birth

26 March, 1915
Townsville, Queensland, Australia

Death

12 April, 1998 (aged 83)
Townsville, Queensland, Australia

Cause of Death

cancer (bowel)

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