Medical studies today are often sliced into specialties and subspecialities, but Ken Roberts studied medicine in England in the 1940s, when a more polymath approach was encouraged.
Literature and geography were on his course list, so he considered the practice of medicine an art as well as a science, an attitude he brought to his work as a founding faculty member with the Medical School at Memorial University of Newfoundland. It shaped how he sought to structure the curriculum, how he taught and mentored students, what he wrote about, what he collected and conserved.
Perhaps it even had something to do with his knack for teaching others the appreciation of single-malt whisky, straight, no ice – Roberts, who died on Dec. 17 in Sheffield, England, “was very much a Renaissance man,” says his friend Brian Payton. “He knew his science, he knew his literature, he knew his art.”
He also co-wrote, with J.D.W. Tomlinson, The Fabric of the Body: European Traditions of Anatomical Illustrations, a major work that ran almost 700 pages, weighed more than five pounds and was, when it appeared in 1992, the first English-language publication on the descriptive science in 50 years.
No surprise then that, at MUN, Roberts developed “a very imaginative curriculum, not crammed full of didactic learning,” Payton says.
It was also forward-thinking. Roberts anchored academics “with a vision of where we were going,” says Max House, former lieutenant-governor of Newfoundland and Labrador. “One of the medical school’s main contributions was what it added to the overall quality of health care in the province.”
Roberts was also deeply interested in medical history (the guide to his fonds at the Faculty of Medicine Founders’ Archive is 15 pages long) and could illuminate seemingly any aspect of it. In an interview on CBC-TV’s Brophy’s Corner, he moved deftly from the introduction of chloroform as a pain reliever in childbirth (Queen Victoria), pre-anesthetic mortality rates for abdominal surgery (unpromising), and the first doctors to work in Newfoundland (surgeons from military ships among them, possibly aided by any educated person in an outport community, who would have been expected to have some kind of domestic medical text for consultation). The historical collection of the Health Sciences Library is named for him.
He was equally attuned to changes in medical studies in his own lifetime. When he was a student they spent five full terms on anatomy, he said in the same interview. “Now you have to be a bit of an engineer, you have to be a bit of a biochemist, you have to be a bit of a pharmacist.
“And you have to know something about the relationships between people. That hasn’t changed, that rapport.”
Kenneth Bryson Roberts was born in London on Sept. 7, 1923, to William Charles and Mary Arabella (Pleace). He had one sibling, Jack, who taught English at Cambridge.
Roberts attended Emanuel School in Wandsworth, London, and then King’s College at the University of London, earning an MBBS, equivalent to an MD in Canada, in 1945. He continued his medical studies at Oxford with a BA. (Honours Physiology) in 1948 and a PhD in Medicine in 1952, which was supervised by the nobel laureate Howard W. Florey.
He then accepted a variety of academic appointments, including research worker, School of Pathology, and lecturer in physiology, Exeter College, Oxford University (1946-1955); associate professor of physiology, Medical College, Baghdad (1955-1956); senior lecturer in physiology at the University of Edinburgh (1956-1961); and reader in physiology at the University of London (1961-1967). As reader he was second in command of the department.
Roberts also worked in a research lab on a hematology-based program.
In 1968 he was the second person appointed to, and the first associate dean of, the Faculty of Medicine at Memorial. Ian Rusted was the dean, and they made a good team, Rusted handling administration while Roberts shepherded the academic side, as well as laying groundwork for new research and assembling needed equipment.
Roberts also fostered the social side of the new school. When the first class graduated, there were lots of parties, one which he threw. He was a welcoming host, and, when necessary, an inventive one. Shirley Strong, who worked with him, remembered: “He was cooking a big salmon, and the stove gave out. So he wrapped it in tinfoil and cooked it in the dishwasher.”
As well as developing Memorial’s medical library, Roberts was the first John Clinch Professor of the History of Medicine. (Clinch was the Newfoundland doctor who, as a friend of smallpox pioneer Edward Jenner, introduced vaccination to North America).
He was instrumental in organizing a medical history group, founded by David Parsons, which met once a month in members’ homes.
Roberts served on many university committees and in national and international organizations. He was the founder and first editor of the Canadian Bulletin of Medical History and also contributed to Advances in Physiology Education (American Journal of Physiology), The Journal of Physiology, Nature and the British Medical Journal, among other publications. He contributed to different editions of Introduction of Molecular Biology and Companion to Medical Studies and other books. He also edited an unpublished collection of medical history essays, Caring for the Sick in Newfoundland.
Roberts married Ruth Mary (May) Catchpool and the couple had four children. In St. John’s, they restored The Stone House on Kenna’s Hill, a four-storey home dating from 1834 and built of cut stone in unique vernacular style, something like a saltbox. It was in such disrepair that the roof had fallen in, but in their hands it became a landmark (and, after they sold it, a well-known restaurant). The couple later separated and Roberts never remarried. May Roberts died in 2007.
Roberts was made emeritus professor in 1988, and spent that year as visiting professor of physiology at the Medical School in Tamil Nadu, India. After retiring, he moved to a new home outside Bridgewater, N.S., where he could practise the gardening he loved. In the last years of his life, he moved back to England.
He was elegant and well-spoken. He was also a very liberal person, Payton says, and had been a conscientious objector, working in hospitals, during the Second World War. His work internationally was part of this outlook. “I could write a book about him, he had so many interests.”
Predeceased by his son Peter in 2003, he leaves his children, Daniel, Alison and Benjamin. A memorial service will be held in Sheffield on Friday, and in St. John’s, on a date yet to be announced.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story said Ken Roberts was reader in psychology at the University of London in the sixties. This version has been corrected.