Robert Shanks was born in Oslo, the son of a British father and Norwegian mother. He was educated at Dollar Academy, Glasgow Academy and the University of Glasgow, from where he graduated in 1940. His interest in paediatrics developed soon after qualifying when he became house physician to Stanley Graham. As with many other young men, his chosen career had to await the end of the second world war. He served with the RAMC from 1941-46, going to Madagascar and Burma. He played a prominent role in establishing a malaria research unit, achieving the substantive rank of lieutenant colonel.
On demobilization Shanks returned to his career in paediatrics in the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Glasgow and, indeed, gave the rest of his professional life to this hospital, until early retirement due to ill health was forced upon him in 1981. A distinguished MD thesis earned him the Bellahouston gold medal of the University. His subject was ‘The convulsions of infancy’, and although Shanks was in all respects a general paediatrician he always had a special interest and expertise in paediatric neurology. His published works were not large in number but of high quality, and always written in beautiful English. While his principal commitments lay in the childrens’ hospital, he also carried responsibility for the paediatric department of Glasgow Royal Maternity Hospital and he acted as consultant to the Eye Infirmary and the Ear, Nose and Throat Hospital. For many years he was physician superintendent of Eastpark Home for Infirm Children, where he amassed a wide experience of neurological and other chronic disorders of childhood. He was elected president of the Scottish Paediatric Society, and twice served on the council of the British Paediatric Association. Until the time of his death he served on the council of the Medical and Dental Defence Union of Scotland.
This factual account of Robert Shanks’s career does not fully reveal the man, the doctor, or his interests outside medicine. He was a fine clinician and a stimulating teacher. Several of his juniors have achieved distinction in academic or NHS posts. He was possessed of an acute sense of humour, even of the ridiculous, and would often relieve a tense moment at a committee meeting with an extremely witty comment. He was a man of deep religious faith which seemed to enable him to bring particular comfort to his patients and their parents when they faced chronic or progressive disabilities. A senior lay member of St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in Glasgow, Shanks once described himself as ‘an enthusiastic Christian, but not much of a Calvinist’. As a member of the Episcopalian-Roman Catholic joint study group he was one of the few church leaders to be presented to the Pope during his visit to Scotland in 1982.
Shanks’s other love was music; not surprising, as his mother had been a professional opera singer and his father was a talented amateur performer in opera. Shanks himself was a gifted pianist. For a long period he was a director of the Scottish National Orchestra Society and of Scottish Opera.
Severe emphysema forced early retirement and his last few years were burdened with increasing breathlessness, but it was a measure of the man that all his friends and colleagues who visited him came away uplifted by his cheerfulness and equanimity. He never married.
[Brit.med.J., 1984,290,164; Lancet, 1985,1,355; The Times, 8 Jan 1985]