Prof James Isbister AM’s century-long, familial tie to Royal North Shore Hospital (RNSH) is the stuff of legends.
In 1900, his grandfather, also Dr James Isbister, a medical graduate from Adelaide University, became Australia’s first graduate to be appointed to RNSH.
Working in general surgery and specialising in gynaecology and obstetrics, Dr Isbister treated a range of patients in the early 20th century, including the renowned Australian Nun, Saint Mary Mackillop, towards the end of her life. Today the Mary Mackillop Museum displays a medical report and letters exchanged between the two.
Dr Isbister also gained notoriety for being one of North Sydney’s first citizens to own a motor car!
Following in his grandfather’s footsteps, Dr Isbister’s father (also James) – a graduate from Sydney University who served as a medical officer in the airforce during World War II – returned to RNSH in 1948, after completing his post-graduate studies in London. He returned with his beautiful wife, Clair Isbister, a consultant Paediatrician, who too worked at RNSH for more than 30 years, until her retirement in 1980.
Another remarkable medico, Dr Clair Isbister, pioneered one of Australia’s first newborn care units and established what is considered the country’s first infection control committee. In fact, her work in hospital cross infection became a model for infection control in Australia that led to the first NHMRC Infection Control Guidelines.
During the 1950s-to-60s, Dr Isbister graced the lounge rooms of many Australian families in her work with the ABC on the long-running women’s hour, as a ‘the Woman Doctor of the Air.’
In 1969 she was awarded an OBE for her services to medicine and a CBE in 1976. In 2011 she was honoured with a Canberra street in her name – Isbister Street – for her immense contributions to medicine and children’s health and welfare.
Dr James Isbister AM trained in medicine at the University of New South Wales, undertaking post-graduate work at St Vincent’s Hospital and in London, before being ‘coerced’ from his consultant appointment at St Vincent’s Hospital into relocating to RNSH in 1980.
“I had been approached about joining RNSH a few times. I finally made the move when my father retired!” Dr Isbister said.
Specialising in haematology – one of the last clinical specialities to be accepted as a specialised form of medicine at RNSH – Dr Isbister assumed the role of Head of the RNSH Haematology Department in 1982.
During his tenure as Departmental Head, Dr Isbister and his team invested significant time into developing an Integrative Clinical and Laboratory Haematology Service.
In 1997, following 15 years of service in the role, Dr Isbister stood down as Head of Department to take up the Head of Transfusion Medicine at RNSH.
“I stayed at the [RNSH] hospital until 2003, when I was appointed an Emeritus Consultant Physician.
“I subsequently did a lot of teaching for about a decade and have also been involved in research,” said Dr Isbister.
“I’ve since maintained my link with the Clinical School of Teaching and continue to do some teaching and research at RNSH.”
In 2014, Dr Isbister was honoured with Membership of the Order of Australia for his outstanding contribution to haematology and transfusion medicine and to professional organisations.
Nowadays, RNSH – which reportedly “endured a long and challenging history before evolving into a major teaching and research hospital” – continues to remain very close to Dr Isbister’s heart.
“I remember RNSH was referred to as the ‘Old school tie’ hospital because it was situated on Sydney’s North Shore and was built before the Harbour Bridge.
“Fortunately, Wallace Freeborn, the superintendent at the time, who attracted both of my parents to RNSH, was passionate about developing it into a major university teaching hospital.”
On the topic of the recent NSW Government’s proposed land divestment of this major teaching hospital, Dr Isbister explains all hospitals have a passionate heart at their core and he strongly supports the majority of RNSH staff’s opposition to the permanent sale or long-term lease of this “extremely valuable hospital land that belongs to the community.”
“RNSH has always been a community-based hospital.”
“If you try to attack it, you attack the community,” Dr Isbister said.
“If you want to rip the hospital’s heart out, you’ll rip the community out with it.
“I am always suspicious of, and worried about anything that’s primarily driven by economics,” said Dr Isbister.
“Our role, the hospital’s role, is to make sick people better, and to keep well people well.
“If we don’t put patients or the community first, we’ll end up locked into an economic agenda,” Dr Isbister said.
“At the end of the day, we must focus on why we exist in the first place.”
Although not a Roman Catholic, Dr Isbister says he’s certain many people within the North Shore Community are currently praying to Saint Mary Mackillop to save his beloved hospital.
“We used to criticise Roger Vanderfield for running the hospital a bit like a rugby referee, but this is what is needed.
“We now have bureaucrats running on to the field and a Government ripping out the hospital’s core,” said Dr Isbister.
Dr Isbister currently serves as Chair of the Human Research Ethics Committee for South-Eastern Sydney at his Alma Mater university hospitals for the University of NSW at Prince of Wales Hospital He is a Clinical Professor of Medicine at the Northern Clinical School and the Faculty of Medicine at RNSH, and has conjoint professorial appointments at three other universities, UNSW, UTS and Monash University.
The Isbister family maintain strong ties with RNSH, most recently with Dr Isbister’s niece, Julia Isbister, who became a medical student at the Northern Clinical School at RNSH in 2008, graduating in 2012.