In this section
9th of May1933
23rd June 2021
Fellow of The Royal Australasian
College of Physicians
The Children’s hospital was the place Bob wished to
work on graduation. His Resident and Registrar years included a six month
neonatal Registrar position at the Royal Women’s Hospital. With John Coldbeck,
he became one of the first two children’s Registrars appointed, allowing for a
self-described 'superb neonatal experience'.
As a Jnr. Resident Bob admitted a grossly abused
two-year old to his Surgical ward. He was born with a cleft palate which
obviously created home management problems.
He had a fractured femur, multiple areas of
frostbite and large pressure sores. Xrays also revealed varying aged fractures.
After 5 months rehabilitation he went home as police reported two
The boy was re-admitted six weeks later, totally
blind with a fractured clavicle, and he was moved to the Blind Institute. After
two years he again returned home. One month later, he was re-admitted, moribund, dying after a few hours with a dense
Bob could not forget this little fellow, despite
the lack of interest in the problems of abuse around the hospital. With his
brother Dr. John Birrell, Victoria’s first Police Surgeon, Bob wrote two papers
for the Medical Journal of Australia – 1966 – “Maltreatment Syndrome in
Children”, and 1968 - “Maltreatment Syndrome in Children – a Hospital Survey”,
involving a series of 42 cases of physical and mental abuse in hospital
inpatients at The Royal Children’s Hospital over a 31 month period.
A number of these children had serious inflicted
head injuries etc., and many their whereabouts were unknown. A government
committee assessed the claims in the reports. The suggested frequency of abuse
reported by Birrell brothers' was questioned. A small grant for abuse
research at the hospital took five years to materialise.
In 1968 Bob 's suggestion that he set up a
protection unit was not felt necessary by most of the staff. His peers saw the Birrells as “just stirrers”,
it seemed. The attitude of many staff was negative, bordering on hostile toward
Bob on this issue. At this time Kath Dawe (Chief MSW), worked with Bob on many
abusive problem families, using his outpatient sessions.
In 1963 – 64 Bob set up a neonatal unit at St.
Vincent’s Hospital and in 1967, with leave of absence from the Children’s, he
joined a government sponsored Prince Henry’s Hospital SEATO surgical team in
South Vietnam as the paediatrician. Dr. Max Robinson went too, but no-one from
the Hospital was prepared to follow them.
From 1963 Bob 's private practice involved a heavy
neonatal load influenced by his Women’s Hospital appointment. Through the 60’s
very few paediatricians coped with Melbourne’s
private midwifery hospital neonates – literally 7 days a week! In 1974, after
17 years on the Children’s staff, “burn-out” caught up with him. With his extraordinarily
supportive wife Jan, and family, Bob moved to South
Gippsland. There he practiced part-time paediatrics out of a
number of small hospitals, whilst remaining on the Children’s staff as a
regional paediatrician. At that stage only two existed in country Victoria. Part-time beef/vealer raising reportedly
returned his sanity!
The trend to early child care in our modern society
concerned Bob greatly, as he retired in 1997.
In 2001 Bob was awarded an OAM for the work in the
field of child abuse.
On April 27th, at the 2017 Victorian Forensic Paediatric Medical Service (VFPMS) seminar on The Medical Evaluation of Child Abuse, Bob Birrell was honoured as a visionary and pioneer, whose work formed the basis of an important field of medicine. He was given a special award on behalf of the Royal Children’s Hospital, the VFPMS and the RCH Medical Alumni.
Fifty years ago, Bob Birrell and his police surgeon brother John, published two seminal papers describing the features of child physical abuse and advocated bringing the police into hospitals where cases of abuse were being treated. At the time, they were not believed and there was strong opposition to police involvement from Bob’s seniors.
It is now abundantly clear that the Birrells were right and the deniers were wrong. A whole discipline of paediatrics has developed to deal with child abuse and neglect. This event was proper acknowledgement from the Royal Children’s Hospital, the forensic community and the RCH Alumni that Bob’s outstanding and important contributions should never be forgotten.
The award ceremony was watched by 30 Alumni and by the non-Alumni attendees at the seminar. A tribute to Bob Birrell was given by Dr Kevin Collins, president of the RCH Medical Alumni, and other tributes were given by A/Prof. Matt Sabin, Chief of Medicine, Dr Hugo Gold, the Alumni Vice President, and Dr Anne Smith, the Director of the Victorian Forensic Paediatric Medical Service (VFPMS).
The award constituted a framed certificate and after the ceremony there followed a lunch, which was attended by 22 members of the Alumni and by Bob and Jan Birrell and their son Mr Peter Birrell.