Cameron, Donald OAM

  • Don Cameron

    Donald James Stuart Cameron

    05/04/47 – 16/10/21



    Adapted from a Eulogy written by Graeme Barnes

    Previously published in Aluminations August 2022

    His career

    Don Cameron was in the first ever Medical School intake in Hobart in 1965.  He took up smoking a pipe during university days – a sight well remembered by many during his early career before he gave it up. Don and Robin married during his final year at Medical School, so she had to support him until he got a proper job. 

    After graduating in 1971 Don did his first JRMO / Intern year in Auckland, where he did a variety of rotations including accident & emergency and infectious diseases, both of which sparked his interest in gastroenterology to some extent. He had expected to remain in Auckland for the next few years but a junior RMO position in Melbourne brought him to the Royal Children’s Hospital in 1972. 

    It is not clear why he chose Gastroenterology.  He had thought about other specialties, including cardiology, but he met Dr Rudge Townley (Director of Gastroenterology) in the Gastro Ward.  Rudge was a stimulating character, and he was a pilot (more later).  Don saw lots of gastroenteritis, and of course was present when Rotavirus was discovered.  So, he settled on Gastroenterology, and as he said, “Diarrhoea became my bread and butter”. 

    By 1975 Don was a Research Fellow in the Department of Gastroenterology at The Royal Children’s Hospital. This followed the discovery of Rotavirus in 1973, which was soon shown to be the most common cause of severe, dehydrating gastroenteritis in infants worldwide.  

    His commitment to his career was best illustrated by the fact that the first day of his overseas Gastroenterology training at Great Ormond Street Hospital, was spent at a cricket match at Lords (a story confirmed by his wife Robin). 

    Don was responsible for finding the unique strain of rotavirus in newborn infants at the Royal Women’s Hospital, which is now the basis of an oral rotavirus vaccine given at birth.  Don’s colleague, Julie Bines, was awarded the Australia Museum Eureka Prize for development and testing of this vaccine.  In media interviews Julie Bines acknowledged Don’s fundamental role, which made this all possible.”

    In 1977 Don had a Fellowship at Great Ormond Street Hospital, where he did pioneer work with Dr John Harries, on stomach function in infants.  He also had appointments at the famed Kings College Hospital and at St Bartholomew’s Hospital with the renowned Dr Christopher Williams. There he perfected his skills in procedures to investigate bowel disorders, including gastroscopy and colonoscopy. 

    He returned to RCH in 1979 as a part-time General Physician.  There was no budget for extra Gastroenterologists at the time.  He also set up in private practice, partly to keep his family fed.

    Prof Arthur Clarke was very positive about the idea of Don also being appointed at the old Queen Victoria Hospital.  And Don provided 24/7 Paediatric Gastroenterology service there, and later at Monash Med Centre.  He was passionate about doing this and built up the service which now has 4 Paediatric Gastroenterologists.  He held the title of Clinical Professor at Monash University.

    What else did he do?

    He saw hundreds of children with problems.  Kids and their parents loved him.

    For one who is primarily a clinician, Don had a remarkable academic, teaching and professional leadership career.  

    He was:  

    •      Investigator on several NHMRC grants

    •      Author on more than 70 peer review publications

    •      He had 60 invitations to speak at national and international conferences

    •      He was Examiner for the Royal Australasian College of Physicians for 12 years

    •      He received The Outstanding Physician Award of the Gastroenterological Society of Australia

    •      He made significant research contributions in coeliac disease, gut allergy and inflammatory bowel disease

    •      He established acid reflux tests, to help sort out infant colic, ably assisted by GE Nurse Di Simpson

    •      He was recently awarded Life Membership of Coeliac Australia 

    •      And he was a Founding Member and stalwart of the Australian Society of Paediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition  

    He was a superb driver of colonoscopes - or so he told his colleagues.  But it should be noted that he was a fully paid-up member of the Sceptics Society!  His many trainees swore he was just the greatest teacher.  They were in awe of his clinical and practical skills.

    Don crossed the gap between Paediatric and Adult Gastroenterology in Australia, like no one before him.  He was the first Paediatrician to chair the committee which set the Australian rules for accreditation in Endoscopy.  He was Secretary of the Gastroenterology Society of Australia for 5 years.  And he was the only Paediatrician who has been President of the Gastroenterological Society of Australia.  That appointment really is a measure of how much his colleagues within his profession respected him.

    To return to his showmanship:  Di Simpson has a wonderful collection of photos taken over 3-4 decades, of Don at various social events in the Dept of Gastro.  

    He couldn’t resist a dress-up opportunity at a Hong Kong restaurant! His flamboyant style will long be remembered by his colleagues.


    Don was nominated for the award of an Australian honour and this was approved, a few months after his death, with a Medal of the Order of Australia in the general division (OAM) in January 2023, in the Australia Day awards. 

    Robin and family members received the award on his behalf on April 3rd at Government House in Melbourne. As Robin said subsequently “He would have been so proud”. 

    Outside medicine

    Mention of his flying must also be made.  His father was an RAAF navigator.  His Gastro boss Rudge Townley was a keen flyer, and Rudge’s sons were international pilots.  His friend and colleague Peter Loughnan was also mad keen on flying and his own son Angus was an international pilot (and is now a Qantas captain flying mainly domestic routes).  Don had to do it too.

    But he went one better, taking up aerobatics.  He decided to do the training while filling in time, waiting for his son Angus at Moorabbin airfield, who was then training for his pilot’s licence (before he was old enough to drive a car).  Aerobatics is not for the faint hearted.  It is certainly enough to cause the abdominal symptoms which Don dealt with as a Gastroenterologist.  It was nearly his undoing.  On one occasion after turning the aircraft upside down and returning to level flight, he realised that the entire windshield was covered in a thick film of oil, leaving only a tiny gap clear.  He was in serious trouble, but by doing some nifty sideslipping he managed to land the aircraft safely.  Perhaps his skill in driving those flexible colonoscopes saved him?  Staring through the gap in the oil, using one eye only, was the answer.  This was a skill he acquired in the pioneering days of endoscopy, before TV monitors were used, when you had to look down the tube with one eye.

    In the months before he died, Don showed great courage.  He was determined to “keep doing stuff”.   He surprised colleagues by continuing to organise professional zoom meetings.  They realised recently he was doing so from his hospital bed.

    Above all, Don always put his family first.  For the rest of us, he was a model of the combined clinician, researcher, leader and teacher, and a wonderful human being.