Obituary: Sir Robert Aitken

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The Independent Online
Robert Aitken was a great Vice-Chancellor of Birmingham University and a man of culture and kindness who contributed greatly to scholarship, to medicine and to academic life in this and other countries.

He was born in 1901 at Wyndham, 25 miles from the southernmost tip of South Island, New Zealand. His father, a native of Glasgow, was a minister and was moved later to the remote East Coast region in the North Island. It was a hard country in those days with a scattered population and few roads; families usually had to ride across country to visit neighbours. It was at the school in Gisborne that Aitken first met Margaret Kane (Madge) later, in 1929, to become his wife.

He qualified in medicine in 1923 at Otago University College, Dunedin, and after junior posts was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship at Balliol College, Oxford. Two years later he joined the Medical Professorial Unit at the London Hospital, Whitechapel. There he finished his DPhil on respiration during exercise and published papers with Dr Clarke-Kennedy and Professor Ellis.

In 1935 he became Reader in Medicine at the newly created British Postgraduate School at Hammersmith. He was one of an outstanding team recruited by the Director, Francis Fraser. Aitken contributed work on gastric ulcers, hypertension and liver disease.

Four years later he was appointed Regius Professor of Medicine at Aberdeen. He was 38 years old (young for such an appointment in those days). It was not an easy time; the demands of the war soon led to a shortage of medical staff, heavy teaching duties and too little time for research. But Aitken was indefatigable and gave tremendous support to the medical students.

He was 47 when he was asked in 1948 to return to Dunedin as Vice-Chancellor of the newly created University of Otago - the only university in New Zealand with a medical school. He played an important part in the conversion of what had been a university college to a full university. Under his leadership there were major developments in the Science Faculty, Medicine and Physical Education (no doubt with the All Blacks in mind). It was at this time that Aitken began his interest in the Association of the Universities of the British Commonwealth, to which he was to contribute greatly.

In 1953 he was invited to become the Vice-Chancellor of Birmingham University; to accept was a difficult decision because he and the family had been very happy in New Zealand. I was a Lecturer at Birmingham and had just been awarded a Medical Research Council Fellowship to work in New York. I was astonished when the new Vice-Chancellor, visited our home to ask me to represent the university at the Second Centenary Celebrations of Columbia University that were to take place that autumn. It was characteristic of Aitken that he came personally to see us, and that while I was away for a year he kept in touch with Margaret, my wife, arranged for my superannuation contributuions to be paid by the university and when I returned called me in to learn all about the work I had been doing with Andre Cournand, one of the pioneers of cardiac catheterisation. He might have been a Vice- Chancellor, but he was always a physician.

In the next 15 years he was to oversee a doubling in the size of the university from 3,000 to 6,500 students, an increase in the annual budget from pounds 1.3m to pounds 7m and an enormous increase in capital expenditure. The Arts Faculty, till then in the middle of the city, was accommodated in a new building on the Edgbaston site. The Staff House was built. There were new buildings for Microbiology, Biochemistry and Electrical Engineering. Departments of East European, West African and Byzantine Studies were created. In accord with the times Social Sciences, Accounting and Local Government Studies were started. With the help of the West Midlands Regional Health Authority under the leadership of Dr Christie Gordon, Departments of Anaesthetics, Psychiatry and Virology were established. They were exciting times.

He was a member and from 1958 to 1961 Chairman of the Committee of Vice- Chancellors and Principals through which he made major contributions to university and medical school development throughout the United Kingdom. He was knighted in 1960.

Aitken was meticulous in his interpretation of proper democratic government of the university; he worked closely with the Pro-Chancellor, the Deans of the Faculties and the Senate and he also, ahead of his times, brought students into the fullest participation in the administration that their age, commitments and limited sojourn would allow.

His wife Madge gave him full support and played an important role in those difficult post-war days in the development of the Wives' Club. The isolation of the wives of staff with children was a matter of deep concern to her. My four-year-old daughter was hugely excited when an invitation to a children's party arrived from the Vice-Chancellor himself.

Even after retirement in 1968 Aitken continued to play an important part in British and Commonwealth University affairs and he was for five years the Deputy Chairman of the University Grants Committee. He and Madge retired to a house with a large garden close to the university. Their son, a teacher in the United States, and their two daughters, one a crystallographer at Liverpool, the other a physician with a major interest in rehabilitation, were a constant joy to them.

In 1984 after a stroke Rob Aitken was confined to a wheelchair; but his intellect was unimpaired and he immediately learnt to write with his left hand (no mean feat when aged 83). In 1990 he was 89 and Madge 90. They sent off their last Christmas card - a delightful picture of them sitting smiling at each other and underneath "Score 179 not out". The next year Madge died. Rob was grievously upset but faced up to things courageously. He remained remarkably bright and in his own home till a few days before he died.

Robert Stevenson Aitken, physician and university administrator: born Wyndham, South Island, New Zealand 16 April 1901; Reader in Medicine, British Post-Graduate Medical School, London University 1935-38; Regius Professor of Medicine, Aberdeen University 1939-48; Vice- Chancellor, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand 1948-53; Vice-Chancellor, Birmingham University 1953-68; Kt 1960; married 1929 Margaret Kane (died 1991; one son, two daughters); died Birmingham 10 April 1997.