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Robert John Walsh (1917–1983)

by Helen Bashir Crane

This article was published:

Robert John Walsh (1917-1983), medical scientist, was born on 3 January 1917 in East Brisbane, second of seven children of Queensland-born parents John James Walsh, barrister, and his wife Catherine Mary, née Ahern. Taught by the Christian Brothers at St Laurence’s College, Bob matriculated in 1933 and enrolled at the University of Queensland the next year. In order to study medicine he transferred to the University of Sydney (MB, BS, 1939), where he resided at St John’s College. After graduating he was a junior (1940), then senior (1941) resident medical officer at Sydney Hospital.

In September 1940 Walsh was appointed as a captain, Australian Army Medical Corps, Citizen Military Forces. He was granted an exemption to continue his civilian medical duties. Early in 1941 the Australian Red Cross Society appointed him as medical officer, to manage the recruitment of blood donors for the war effort. The blood transfusion service was taken over by the army and on 2 June 1941 he was called up for full-time military duties. In July 1942 the 2nd Australian Blood and Serum Preparation Unit was set up, with Walsh in charge; he was promoted to temporary (later substantive) major in September 1942. His unit designed an ice-box suitable for transporting blood and sent large quantities of prepared serum and plasma to Australian, British and United States forces serving in the Pacific. On 5 June 1944 at St Mark’s Church of England, Darling Point, he married Kathleen Helen Tooth, a medical practitioner who had been a fellow student at university.

During his military service Walsh was diagnosed with acute hypertension and tuberculosis. In September 1946, after treatment for tuberculosis, he was demobilised and was invited to become director of the New South Wales Red Cross Blood Transfusion Service. He oversaw significant developments in techniques for the collection, storage and transportation of blood and blood products. On study leave in 1947-48 he worked for a year at Harvard Medical School in Professor C. A. Finch’s laboratory and for six months in London and Oxford.

Back in Sydney, Walsh continued to supervise the increasingly complex technical management of the blood and component supply, and began to investigate the genetic basis and inheritance of blood groups, and their distribution among Indigenous and other Australians and Pacific Islanders. The work identifying genetic links between populations established a firm foundation for further studies. With colleagues, Walsh also investigated the rhesus factor, the inheritance of albinism, the metabolism of iron in the human body and the pathogenesis and inheritance of haemochromatosis, and described a hitherto unknown blood group that he named S for Sydney. He was elected as a fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians (1955), of the (Royal) College of Pathologists of Australasia (1956) and of the Australian Academy of Science (1959).

In 1962 Walsh was appointed visiting professor in human genetics in the new faculty of medicine, University of New South Wales. In late 1966 he resigned from the BTS to take up the foundation chair in human genetics. He was a member (1969-73, 1977-79) of the university council and chairman (1971-73) of the professorial board. In 1973 he was appointed dean of medicine, developing the faculty and overseeing the transition from a six-year to a five-year undergraduate course. Among his many commitments, he was a member (1963-65, 1966-70) of the research advisory committee, National Health and Medical Research Council. He made important contributions to the International Biological Programme and its studies of human adaptability in Papua New Guinea, to the medical research advisory committee of Papua New Guinea and he served as chairman (1970-73) of the council of the Institute of Human Biology (Papua New Guinea).

Walsh helped to establish the Haematology Society of Australia and the Australian Society of Blood Transfusion; in 1966 he was joint secretary-general for the XIth congresses of the International Society of Haematology and the International Society of Blood Transfusion, held in Sydney. In the 1970s he served on several government committees, including the Commonwealth Advisory Committee on the Environment and the Australian Population and Immigration Council; he was chairman (1970) of the Commonwealth and Queensland committee appointed to investigate the problem of the crown-of-thorns starfish, and of the Australian Ionising Radiation Advisory Council (1973-83). In 1972-73 he was president of the Australian Academy of Forensic Sciences. He retired from the university in 1982 and was made emeritus professor. Despite ill health he accepted two major government commitments: an inquiry into the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies and a study of the health of Vietnam War veterans. He was appointed OBE (1970), AO (1976) and AC (1982), and was awarded the James Cook medal of the Royal Society of New South Wales (1979).

A quiet adviser, guide and supporter of countless members of the scientific community and the medical profession, Walsh was renowned for his sociability, conversation, wit and good humour. According to F. C. Courtice, ‘some of his colleagues regarded him as a ‘‘workaholic" and a compulsive acceptor of responsibilities’. Survived by his wife, their three sons and daughter, he died of lymphoma on 20 July 1983 at Westmead and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Roll of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, vol 2 (1994)
  • R. Winton, With Hand and Mind and Heart (1999)
  • M. Cortiula, Banking on Blood (2001)
  • Australian Journal of Forensic Science, vol 16, no 1, 1983, p 46
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 29 Oct 1983, p 464
  • Pathology, vol 16, no 1, 1984, p 97
  • Historical Records Australian Science, vol 6, no 2, 1985, p 277
  • Journal and Proceedings Royal Society of NSW, vol 117, 1984, p 83
  • B884, item N271594 (National Archives of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Helen Bashir Crane, 'Walsh, Robert John (1917–1983)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 12 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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