Born in the small Ontario town of St Mary’s, and having received his primary education there and his secondary education in Ottawa, the capital of Canada, Robert Dickson was destined to become a truly outstanding physician, teacher, administrator and medical statesman; a man who combined a strong character with personal warmth and good humour. He was the son of William Murray Dickson, a Federal civil servant, and his wife Mabel Earl Clark.
Such is the magnitude of this medical giant’s contributions that they are best considered in relation to three separate categories, namely academic medicine, military medicine and medical statesmanship.
Early during his undergraduate medical education in the University of Toronto, Robert Dickson demonstrated his superb scholastic ability and was made a member of the Alpha Omega Honor Medical Society. In 1934, two years later, he graduated with honours and was awarded the Cody silver medal. He had been greatly influenced by Duncan Graham [Munk's Roll, Vol.VI, p.204] who was at that time professor of medicine of the University of Toronto, and also serving as the third president of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada. Indeed, his powerful influence was reflected throughout Dickson’s illustrious career.
Motivated to become an academic physician, Robert Dickson spent five years’ postgraduate training in internal medicine at the Toronto General Hospital, during which time his record was exemplary. After six years of service in the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps, he was invited to join the teaching staff of the faculty of medicine in the university, where he proved to be a magnificent teacher not only in the lecture hall but also at the bedside - in the tradition of another great Canadian physician, Sir William Osler [Munk's Roll, Vol.IV, p.295]. Many medical students vividly recall three important lessons they learnt from Robert Dickson: first, ‘come on time or not at all’; second, ‘knowledge is useless unless it is organized’, and third, ‘you learn medicine from patients and not from books’.
Having served on the teaching staff of the Toronto General Hospital for four years, Robert Dickson was appointed physician in chief of the Wellesley Hospital (at that time a newly created division of the Toronto General Hospital) and during the ensuing seven years he rapidly achieved an enviable reputation as an outstanding physician and teacher, especially in his field of gastroenterology within the specialty of internal medicine.
Robert Dickson was already recognized as an academic leader when he was appointed professor and head of the department of medicine in Dalhousie University, Halifax, a position which he filled with great distinction until his retirement in 1974. During these 18 years Dickson’s brilliance as a postgraduate teacher was demonstrated by the fact that the specialist residents he trained had the highest pass rate in Canada in the examinations of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada - a most impressive record. At least four of his postgraduate students eventually became professors of medicine in other Canadian universities. Robert Dickson also contributed some 40 articles to scientific literature. After his appointment as professor emeritus, he continued to teach postgraduate students in Camp Hill Hospital, the Department of Veteran Affairs Hospital in Halifax, and continued to exemplify both the art and the science of medicine. Both nationally and internationally he was considered to be one of Canada’s most distinguished physician-teachers and in 1974 his contribution was recognized by the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada when he was given the Duncan Graham Award - the College’s highest honour in the field of medical education.
In 1975. Dalhousie University established the Robert Clark Dickson Lecture in his honour. These lectures, which Robert Dickson faithfully attended, have been delivered by many American and Canadian colleagues including Franz J Ingelfinger [Munk's Roll, Vol.VII, p.296], Robert G Petersdorf, John C Laidlaw, Samuel O Freedman, Douglas G Cameron, Robert B Salter and John R Evans. His contribution to academic medicine was also recognized, in 1982, by the Victoria General Hospital of Halifax when it named the Robert Clark Dickson Centre for Ambulatory Care and Oncology Research.
Before the outbreak of the second world war, Robert Dickson served for two years as a medical officer in the Militia with No 16 Field Ambulance of the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps. In September 1939 he was among the first Canadian physicians to volunteer for active service. He went overseas with No 15 Canadian General Hospital as officer in charge of medicine. He rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel and served with distinction in North Africa and Italy. His contributions to military medicine were recognized in 1945 when he received his OBE. At the end of hostilities, Robert Dickson returned to the Militia, in which he served from 1946-52 as RMO to the 48th Highlanders of Canada. He was awarded the CD in 1952 and appointed Queen’s Honorary Physician in 1973. He was a member of the Canadian Forces Medical Council from 1966-74 and subsequently its chairman.
Throughout his medical career, Robert Dickson accepted increasing responsibilities as a national leader. He served as a member of council of the RCPSC for a record period of 12 years, including two years as one of the College’s most distinguished presidents, 1970-72.
During his presidency of the Royal College, in a particularly difficult period in the history of the College, Dickson made a personal tour of every major centre across Canada in a successful effort to bring about important changes in Royal College policy. This gruelling tour he undertook despite a serious and painful physical handicap; he had arthritis of both hips, the surgical treatment of which he deferred until he had completed his two-year term as president of the college.
It was an example of the dedication he exemplified throughout his professional career. He also served Canadian medicine as chairman of the board of governors of the R S McLaughlin Examination and Research Centre of the Royal College.
Robert Dickson received a number of well merited honours: he was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada, and received the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws not only from Dalhousie University but also from his alma mater, the University of Toronto. The American College of Physicians appointed him a governor for the Atlantic Provinces, 1962-68, and he later became a member of their board of regents, 1968-74. More recently, he was elected a Master. In the United Kingdom he was elected to the fellowship of the College.
Robert Dickson was a man of vision, combined with common sense and practical application. At Dalhousie he founded the first Canadian School of Outpost Nursing in 1961. From 1970 he served as a member of the board of directors of the Grenfell Labrador Medical Mission, and from 1974 as a member of the board of directors of the International Grenfell Association.
He was a physician in the best Oslerian tradition: a physician, teacher, administrator and medical statesman, and kind and gracious to both patients and colleagues. Those who were fortunate enough to be his friends will always cherish his memory.
He married Constance Fraser Grant, daughter of a civil engineer, in 1906 and they had two daughters, Shelagh and Jane. His main interest, apart from medicine and his family, was in sailing.