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Dr Ian Hopkins, OAM, MD, FRACP, was the first in Australia to train and work exclusively as a paediatric neurologist. He was a person and clinician of such stature that his influence still permeates his chosen specialty.
An early hint of Ian’s potential was the award of the Rhodes Ideal prize in his final year at Camberwell Grammar School, for the best all-rounder displaying the most gentlemanly attributes. Ian said that he was inspired to study medicine after a school camp where he assisted the medical officer there, Richard Newing, an eminent Victorian plastic surgeon.
In 1957, he graduated with honours from the University of Melbourne, winning the Ryan prizes in medicine and surgery. In 1962, after residencies at St Vincent’s Hospital and the Royal Children’s Hospital (RCH), he received his doctor of medicine degree and the David Grant Medal from the University of Melbourne. Later, Ian qualified as a member, then a fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians and joined the Australian Paediatric Society and the Australian Association of Neurologists.
In November 1962, Ian married Barbara Stewart, a nurse at RCH, and they were later to have five children – Kate, Andrew, Christine, Paul and Susie.
Until the mid-1960s, there were no trained paediatric neurologists in Victoria. Vernon Collins, the first professor of paediatrics at the University of Melbourne, recognised this deficiency and convinced the talented young Dr Hopkins to become a paediatric neurologist.
In 1963-1964, with a Nuffield Foundation Travelling Fellowship, Ian worked in London at the Hammersmith Hospital’s Nuffield Research Unit; at the Institute of Neurology, National Hospital, Queen Square; and at the Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street.
In 1964-1965, with an RCH Uncle Bob’s Fellowship, he trained under Dr David Clark, one of the fathers of paediatric neurology. Ian was first a trainee fellow in neurology at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore, then, at Dr Clark’s invitation, an instructor in the newly established Department of Neurology at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.
With no hospital position available at RCH when Ian returned to Melbourne, Professor Collins again supported him, so that he became first assistant (senior lecturer) in the Department of Paediatrics. Ian was later employed by RCH and was appointed neurologist there in 1968. For a decade, he was the sole paediatric neurologist covering not just Melbourne, but also Victoria, Tasmania and southern NSW, until younger colleagues returned from overseas training.
When a Department of Neurology was formally established at RCH in 1977, he became its inaugural director until 1987, continuing as senior neurologist there until his retirement from the hospital in 2001. He maintained his private practice for a short time afterwards.
Ian did not see himself primarily as a researcher but nonetheless authored or co-authored more than 60 scientific papers. Two disorders carry his name – Hopkins syndrome (polio-like illness following asthma), and Pitt-Hopkins syndrome (genetic disorder with intellectual disability, distinctive facial features, and irregular breathing).
Despite his heavy workload, Ian made time for teaching trainee paediatricians, and his weekly tutorials for junior medical staff are remembered as the first regular departmental teaching sessions in the hospital. An annual seminar on practical topics in paediatric neurology for general paediatricians, begun by Ian in 1979, is now named the Hopkins Symposium in his honour.
In the 1980s, he increasingly turned his attention to childhood epilepsy. He had already established a high-quality paediatric electroencephalography (EEG) service in Melbourne, introduced the ketogenic diet for uncontrolled epilepsy, and was developing a dedicated seizure clinic.
In 1983, in collaboration with biomedical engineers at RCH, Ian was instrumental in developing a video-EEG monitoring system. This was a seminal achievement and provided the standard equipment for seizure investigation in southern Australia for a decade. It was also the foundation of the current world-leading epilepsy and epilepsy surgery programs at RCH.
The esteem of Ian’s colleagues, his strong administrative skills, intellectual capacity and even-handedness led to leadership roles within RCH as well as nationally and internationally. These included being chairman of the RCH Medical Staff Association, the Australian College of Paediatrics scientific program committee and the National Epilepsy Association, as well as being a founding board member of the International Child Neurology Association.
In 1994, he was awarded the prestigious RCH President’s Medal, recognising his major contribution to the work and reputation of the hospital over a significant period. In 2003, the Peter Bladin Award, the highest honour of the Epilepsy Society of Australia, recognised his outstanding service to epilepsy in Australia. In 2010, the Medal of the Order of Australia was awarded to Ian “for service to medicine as a paediatric neurologist and through professional organisations”.
As a neurologist, Ian was very efficient, being able to quickly identify the crucial information needed to reach a prompt diagnosis in his young patients. While at times this ability may have seemed magical to his colleagues, it simply arose from an exceptional combination of intellectual ability, patient rapport, knowledge and experience.
Ian was also a skilled woodworking craftsman, creating fine furniture and smaller decorative wooden objects. Using marquetry, he made plaques highlighting the crest of RCH and those of other medical organisations. Another tribute to his talents outside of medicine was the design and building of a mud-brick country house at Riddells Creek, north-west of Melbourne. Ian was heavily involved both as brickmaker and in the physical work of building.
Ian Hopkins would not want to be defined by a list of publications, syndrome names or honours awarded to him. His defining features were his outstanding clinical acumen combined with humility regarding his skills and knowledge, which were for sharing, not for self-aggrandisement.
He was always professional, calm and compassionate. Whether at the bedside, in the clinic or the office, he was warm and reassuring. He treated all colleagues with great respect, including junior and senior doctors, nurses, and allied health staff. Those who knew Ian well outside of his medical world saw a man who was unfailingly calm, never losing his composure or self-control. He was always generous in acknowledging those who had helped him throughout his career.
Through his remarkable personal and professional qualities, Ian Hopkins has had an enduring influence not only on his immediate colleagues, but over time, on the expanding community of Australian paediatric neurologists and paediatricians, together with the children they care for.
Ian is survived by his wife Barbara, their children, nine grandchildren and his sisters Barbara and Jeanette.
This tribute was written by Ian’s colleagues Kevin Collins and Lloyd Shield, assisted by Ian’s family and Brian Collopy, his long-time friend.