22 December 2010

Vale, Ken Atkinson

The following obituary for Ken Atkinson, an old boy of the Armidale School who was in his final year in my first year there, was published in yesterday’s edition of The Sydney Morning Herald.

Kenneth Hugh Atkinson, 1939-2010.

Ken Atkinson was a gynaecologist and an unpretentious man of achievement. He was a dedicated oncological surgeon and taught many of Sydney's currently practising gynaecologists.

The secret of his success in work, his marriage and friendships was that he possessed a rare quality: he listened. Not just politely but with genuine interest. He was also a great teacher and had an extraordinary ability to convey the practical skills needed for the management of patients.

Kenneth Hugh Atkinson was born on August 1, 1939, in Moss Vale to Athol (Dod) Atkinson and his wife, Ethel Cameron. The Atkinsons moved to Fiji, where Dod managed a cattle ranch but died of typhoid when Ken was 18 months old. Ethel also contracted typhoid but recovered, returned to Australia and moved to Armidale, where Ken grew up. He went to The Armidale School, where he was dux of his final year.

In 1957, he went to the University of Sydney to study medicine. He spent six years at St Paul's College.

His contemporaries remember that he studied little and on one occasion remarked to a fellow student that he ''could not believe how easy the medical course was''. He passed his examinations with ease, getting credits and distinctions each year, and graduated with honours in 1963. In 1964, he married Susan Vail.

He then went to Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and two years later became a registrar at King George V Hospital at RPAH. In his second year at King George, he sat the membership examination for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and got the top mark in Australia.

In 1968 he was appointed clinical superintendent at King George. He single-handedly altered the whole ethos of the hospital - introducing formal resident training and running regular seminars incorporating interaction with other clinical specialities. In his teaching, when manipulative obstetrics (correcting abnormal presentations by hand) was still practised, he taught the resident staff to practise it as an art form.

Before leaving the clinical superintendent position, Atkinson was awarded the Joseph Foreman Fellowship. This took him to Boston, Massachusetts, where he was surgical resident to Howard Ulfelder, one of the greatest gynaecological surgeons of the time.

In 1971, he returned to Sydney where he progressively took up a series of appointments: as visiting medical officer in obstetrics and gynaecology at RPAH then at Ryde Hospital, Poplars Private Hospital in Epping and Sydney Adventist Hospital in Wahroonga.

He demonstrated an almost superhuman capacity to work. His days started at 4.30am with rounds at the Adventist, then Ryde, Poplars and RPAH. He then began his day in his rooms, seeing 20-30 patients a session and being intermittently interrupted by a delivery at any of these geographically disparate hospitals. He was delivering close to 400 babies a year.

After he gave up obstetrics in the mid-1990s, he concentrated on gynaecological cancer surgery. He handled most of the difficult gynaecological cancer surgery on the upper north shore and, of course, at RPAH, where he was on call for surgical disasters. He never complained about being called in at any time of the day or night; he did it all with good humour but no one equalled him ''when the chips were down''.

In 1974, Atkinson was a member of the NSW committee of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. In 1984 he served on the executive committee of the Australian Society for Colposcopy and Cervical Pathology and became chairman of the committee in 1994. In the same year he was elected to the council of the NSW Medical Defence Union and in 1995 he served on its executive committee.

In 1996 he became a director of United Medical Protection and later deputy chairman.

He was the spokesman for UMP during the medical insurance crisis that resulted in major reform to tort law and insurance in Australia. This increased his interest in medico legal problems and he took a master's in health law at the University of Sydney.

Ken Atkinson is survived by Susan, children Tracey, Josephine and Bill, son-in-law Adam, daughter-in-law Kim and grandsons Sam and Jack.

Andrew Korda

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