June 2, 1886
March 23, 1966
medical scientist, inventor
Dr. Oswald Hope Robertson was born in Woolwich, England, June 2, 1886. When he was one and a half years of age, his parents moved to California and settled in the San Joaquin Valley at a time when it was still in a very primitive condition. He loved the out-of-doors, especially the small animal life of the valley and surrounding mountains.
Robertson began and ended his career as a naturalist in this same environment. In the intervening years his contributions to medical science were highly regarded by his colleagues, not only for their basic importance, but also -- and especially -- for the convincing array of indisputable evidence to support his contentions. He was ingenious in designing apparatus to meet the needs of his experiments. For example, in the early thirties he designed a heart-lung machine to induce artificial pneumonia "in vitro." It was a masterpiece and almost completely successful; all that was lacking was the discovery of latter-day electronics that has made modem scientific and therapeutic equipment so spectacular.
He was an able clinician as well as an extremely effective teacher, especially with small groups. Occasionally he assumed important administrative assignments but the restraint of his enthusiasm for those responsibilities was quite obvious.
After attending the local primary schools in Dinuba, California, Robertson graduated from Polytechnic High School in San Francisco.
Originally he planned a career in basic biology but was diverted from this course while on a vacation in Germany. Here he met an American medical student and was invited to accompany him to some lectures and demonstrations in anatomy and clinical medicine. This brief insight into the realm of human biology and pathology provided a new direction to his future course. He decided to study medicine and was admitted on his return to the premedical course at the University of California in 1906. His research instincts asserted themselves early. Even as a first-year student, he did some creditable research on the complement fixation test of rabies in the laboratory of F. P. Gay. Later in the same laboratory he worked on a diagnostic test for glanders. Although these studies were never published, they were written up and accepted for a Master of Science degree in 1910. At the instigation of friends he transferred to Harvard Medical School as a junior student. The high quality of his performance in medical school won for him the prized Dalton Scholarship Award to study pernicious anemia at the Massachusetts General Hospital, where he was appointed as an intern in 1913-1914. During this busy period, he had his first paper published in CALIFORNIA AND WESTERN MEDICINE on Ehrlich's test for urobilinogen as an index of liver function. By this time his career as an investigator was established and he accepted a renewa1 of the fellowship to pursue his interests in the experimental and clinical manifestations of certain blood dyscrasias.
After his house officership he was appointed as an assistant in bacteriology and pathology at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, where he planned to continue his studies on the physiology of blood in the laboratories of Dr. Peyton Rous. He and his new bride, Ruth Allen, a nurse he met at the Boston Children's Hospital, moved to New York in the autumn of 1915; but he had barely started his experiments on reticulocytes when World War I called for his services on the Harvard team of Dr. Harvey Cushing. In France, his early interests in hematology stood him in good stead as he was assigned the task of seeking better ways of reducing the risks of excessive transfusions. At the same time he initiated experiments to learn whether a fluid devised by Rous in the laboratory to preserve human blood cells "in vitro" had a practical use for transfusions at the battle front and in military hospitals. He demonstrated that the preserved cells were indeed an acceptable substitute, and Robertson now is recognized as the creator of the first blood bank. For this work he received decorations from both the American and British governments and was discharged in 1919 from the U.S. Army after attaining the rank of major.
He returned to the Rockefeller Institute and began his important studies in the field of infectious diseases, first with Hideyo Noguchi and then with O.T. Avery. In Avery's laboratory he became interested in the pneumococcus and pneumonia, which engaged his attention for more than twenty years. However, again his studies were interrupted by an attractive offer he accepted to assist in the development of the newly established Peking Union Medical College. He was appointed Associate Professor of Medicine and in 1923 he became Professor of Medicine and head of the department. He loved the eight years spent in China, a period of intense clinical activity and a reactivation of research interests in the infectious disease group -- particularly in the pneumococcal group. Robertson, working closely with the young Chinese students, as well as with the staff, was given much credit for the successful growth of the institution. It became a hallmark for medical excellence in the Oriental world. The patterns of modern Western methods were accepted and established so readily that repeated efforts to negate them for political reasons were unsuccessful. Although his professional activities kept him very busy he still found time to roam the countryside, to hunt bustards, or just to observe the native fauna and flora. He acquired a host of Chinese friends who made his home and laboratory a favorite meeting place -- a practice they continued when visiting him after the Robertsons returned to the United States in 1927 following his recovery from an attack of typhus fever.
After a lengthy convalescence he accepted a professorship in medicine at the University of Chicago, where university-owned hospitals had just been built on the campus. He was intrigued by the opportunity to become associated with the group objectives, which were unique in American medical education and care in three important respects: (1) it was the first time an entire faculty was on a full-time basis as university faculty members without any private practice and remuneration; (2) all patients were utilized for teaching purposes; and (3) the clinical faculty were combined with the nonclinical group into a single division of biological sciences. As these plans became operative in the late twenties they met considerable resistance, but after four decades they are now accepted as sound and have become models for many other institutions, both existing and new ones. Robertson's role during the early growth pains was not insignificant. For a time he was the able administrative head of medicine, but this responsibility he transferred as soon as other competent hands could be found. In the research laboratories his studies on the pathogenesis and immunology of lobar pneumonia were classic. It was at this time he developed the heart-lung machine with his group, of which it was a privilege to be a member.
Photo: From RED GOLD: THE EPIC STORY OF BLOOD, courtesy of Don Robertson.