Robertson, H. Rocke (Harold Rocke), 1912-1998

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Robertson, H. Rocke (Harold Rocke), 1912-1998

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  • Robertson, Rocke, 1912-1998

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Born in Victoria, British Columbia, on August 4, 1912, Harold Rocke Robertson, known as H. Rocke Robertson or “Rocke”, received his primary school education at St. Michael’s School and his secondary school training, from 1926-1929, at Brentwood College in Victoria. From 1925-1926, accompanied by his sister, Marian, he studied near Geneva, Switzerland, where he acquired French. In 1929 he moved to Montreal where he attended McGill University, receiving a B.Sc. (1932) and an M.D.C.M. (1936). He also completed an internship at the Montreal General Hospital under Dr. Fraser B. Gurd and he studied pathology under Dr. Pop Rhea. Following this, Robertson earned a medical fellowship at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, Scotland, where he studied from 1938 to 1939. In 1937 he married Beatrice Rosyln Arnold, known as “Rolly” at Arncliffe, her family home, in Senneville, Quebec, and had four children: Tam, Ian, Bea, and Stuart, known as “Tooie or Toopot”.

H. Rocke Robertson died on February 8, 1998, Ottawa, Ontario. His funeral was held at McGill University.


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In 1940, H. Rocke Robertson enlisted with the RCAMC (Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps), serving in England until 1943 when he was appointed commander of the 2nd Canadian Field Surgical Unit. In the summer of 1943 he participated in the allied invasion of Sicily and Italy, known as Operation Husky. During his military service, he achieved the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. In 1944, still a member of the military, he became the Chief of Surgery at the Vancouver Military Hospital and Head Surgeon at the Shaughnessy Veteran’s Hospital. Following this, he was instrumental in the development of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of British Columbia, where he became Head of the Department of Surgery and UBC’s first Professor of Surgery from 1950-1959. He also served as acting dean of the Faculty of Medicine although he declined to accept this as a full-time appointment. Upon his return to Montreal in 1959, Robertson procured the position of Surgeon in Chief at the Montreal General Hospital, where he oversaw the building of the University Surgical Clinic. In addition, he altered the emergency room and developed the Trauma Team concept, which is still the basis for many contemporary trauma centres. Robertson also developed a Surgical Intensive Care Unit at the Montreal General Hospital, and he acted as the Chairman of Surgery at McGill University, where he taught until 1962. He particularly enjoyed teaching and was well-known for his bedside clinics. Although Robertson received recognition as a surgeon, his greatest contributions to the field of medicine were administrative, namely improving hospital operating systems and later health care delivery systems.

From 1962-1970, H. Rocke Robertson served as the Principal and Vice Chancellor of McGill University during the most tumultuous decade of McGill’s history. He was the first McGill graduate to receive this appointment. His principalship was often troubled by the radical student and Quebec nationalist protests of the time. During his principalship he oversaw the rapid physical expansion of the University through the construction of several buildings, including the McIntyre Medical Building, the Leacock Building, the Otto Maass Chemistry Building, the Stewart Biology Building, and the University Centre. Robertson’s principalship also coincided with the rise and fall of the much publicized HARP (High Altitude Research) programme. This joint US Military-McGill project, headed by Dr. Gerald Bull and Donald Mordell, the Dean of Engineering at McGill University, tested using cannons instead of rockets to launch satellites and to explore the earth’s atmosphere.

Under his tenure the number of staff and students doubled. In response to the increased size of the University, Robertson implemented a more bureaucratic structure with several vice-principals. He sought to better integrate McGill within the fabric of Quebec society through the creation of the French Canada Studies Programme and the introduction of a policy that permitted francophone students to write their exams and papers in French. Robertson also advocated strongly for increased funding for McGill from the provincial government of Quebec in his correspondence with Premier Robert Bourassa, to little avail, and he even contemplated approaching the federal government with the concept of McGill as a national university in order to secure federal funding. It was Robertson’s hope that improved educational quality at McGill would facilitate French and English Canadian relations. Under student pressure for reform he reorganized the governance structure of McGill to accommodate student membership in the Senate, the Committees of the Senate, and the Board of Governors.

The turbulent years of Robertson’s principalship were characterized by student demonstrations and unrest, largely spearheaded by John Fekete, editor of the McGill Daily and Stanley Gray, a McGill Political Science Professor and Marxist Lecturer. In what was to later become known as the McGill Daily Affair, Robertson received criticism for permitting the Montreal police morality squad to confiscate copies of the McGill Daily containing Paul Krassner’s controversial, reprinted article from The Realist entitled, “The Parts that were left out of the Kennedy Book”, as well as for bringing charges before the Senate Discipline Committee against Fekete and two other editors. This controversy caused a contingent of radical McGill students to occupy the Senate Discipline Committee and the Administration Building, including the principal’s office. Further demonstrations followed wherein students agitated for changes in university governance, including increased representation, which Robertson accommodated. Although Stanley Gray did not directly participate in the aforementioned occupations, he was present to verbally instigate students. His repeated calls for direct action and forceful student protests led to further disruptions of board of governor meetings and senate meetings, eventually culminating in Operation McGill français, a march calling for an end to English control of McGill. Marchers included French-Canadian Nationalists, radical McGill students, and supporters of other radical political ideologies. As a result of these disruptions, Robertson again felt forced to take formal action. During the Stanley Gray affair, the arbitration committee, which did relieve Gray of his professorial duties, subtly criticized Robertson by suggesting that he could have more effectively handled the situation by taking Gray’s Department Head into his confidence prior to formally laying charges or by directly confronting Gray, telling him that he immediately cease his radical behaviour. Further signs of the atmosphere of the time included numerous bomb threats, such as the “Greenhouse bomb incident”, in which a bomb was detonated in a McGill greenhouse, and the “Save the Trees” riot, when students protested the removal of trees at the construction site of Burnside Hall. The stress of his principalship at McGill, coupled with the political turbulence in Quebec at the time, eventually led to Robertson’s retirement from McGill in 1970.

During his lifetime, H. Rocke Robertson was awarded numerous honorary degrees from diverse Canadian and American universities, including Harvard University, Memorial University, the University of Toronto, and the University of Philadelphia. In 1956 he became one of only two Canadian doctors to become Harvard’s Visiting Surgeon in Chief Pro Tempore at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital under Francis D. Moore. He was a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada, the American College of Surgeons, and the Royal College of Surgeons (Edinburgh). In 1969, he was made a Companion of the Order of Canada. He also served on the National Research Council of Canada. During his retirement he kept active, for example through his role as an honorary librarian and archivist for the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada from 1974-1992, and then as honourary archivist from 1992 onwards. Robertson was also a prolific writer, who published widely on medical related topics, and he often delivered speeches, reflecting both his professional and personal interests.

Such personal interests included collecting rare English dictionaries, studying lexicography, and researching the history of medicine. Robertson donated his collection of dictionaries to the University of British Columbia and published a book on this collection, entitled A Collection of Dictionaries and Related Works: Illustrating Some Aspects of the Development of the English Dictionary Volumes I and II with his grandson, J. Wesley Robertson. Additionally, throughout his lifetime Robertson excelled at many sports; however, he was best known for his skills as a doubles tennis player.

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