Old Ruthinian Association

Old Ruthinian Association - Obituary

Emeritus Professor Barrie Vernon-Roberts O.R.

Author:Mark Vernon-Roberts
AO, MD, BSc, PhD, FRCPath, FRCPA, FAOrthA (Hon) FRS.SA

22nd March 1935 - 1st December 2015

Barrie Vernon-Roberts, an outstanding researcher in the field of bone and joint pathology, spinal disease and inflammation has died in Adelaide aged 80.

The second of four brothers, he was born and brought up in rural North Wales. He was educated at Ruthin School where he won many academic prizes as well as excelling as a rugby player and middle distance runner.

He went to Charing Cross Hospital Medical School, qualifying MBBS in 1960. He was an exceptional student, winning the leading prizes including The Llewellyn Scholarship as the outstanding graduate of the year. He also captained the athletics and golf teams as well as representing the hospital at rugby.

After house jobs at Charing Cross he took the post of Anatomy Lecturer at King's College with a view to a career in surgery. However, under Professor Nicol he quickly became involved in research into the influence of hormones on the reticulo endothelial system, publishing his first paper in 1963. The work led to a PhD degree in 1965 and MD in 1966. In 1972 he was invited to write a monograph, 'The Macrophage', published by Cambridge University Press in 1972.

In 1969 he was appointed Senior Lecturer in the Department of Morbid Anatomy at The Royal London Hospital, becoming a Consultant Pathologist in 1974. His clinical work and research in collaboration with rheumatologists and orthopaedic surgeons resulted in the Arthritis & Rheumatism Council Bone & Joint Research Unit being created at the hospital, of which he was Director. He was awarded the Margaret Holdroyde Prize by the Heberden Society and the Prize of the British Association of Rheumatology and Rehabilitation. He was a committee member of the ARC, The Medical Research Council and the Heberden Society, as well as being a founder member of the Society for Back Pain Research.

In 1976 he became The George Richard Marks Professor of Pathology in the University of Adelaide, Head of the Division of Tissue Pathology at the Institute of Medical & Veterinary Science and Senior Visiting Pathologist to The Royal Adelaide Hospital. In 1997 he was appointed Chief Pathologist at the IMVS and its Director and Chief Executive in 1998. He was the Senior Consultant Pathologist in The Adelaide Centre for Spinal Research.

Thanks to his vision and under his leadership the IMVS not only provided first-class pathological services, it became a world renowned clinically based medical and veterinary research institution in the field of important diseases and their treatment.

He was instrumental in raising over $15million in research funding and inspired and educated a large number of research students; he supervised 30 PhD and MD theses.

He was a Fellow of the Royal College of Pathologists of both the UK and Australia, and a member of the council of the latter. He had the rare distinction for a non surgeon of the award of an Honorary Fellowship of the Australian Orthopaedic Association in recognition of his diagnostic and research work in orthopaedics. At different times he was Vice-Dean of the Medical School of the University of Adelaide and Pro-Vice Chancellor of the University, as well as being a member of many state and national scientific committees.

His major research over the last forty plus years concerned bone and joint changes in arthritis, spinal pathology, loosening of artificial joints and the actions of anti-arthritic drugs. He published 160 scientific papers between 1963 and 2008, as well as contributing chapters to nearly thirty books in the field. He was an invited speaker at scientific meetings in many countries.
Amongst many awards and distinctions, his research on the spine won the premier international award for back pain research, The Volvo Award, on three occasions in 1986, 1990 and 2003. This work placed the Adelaide Centre for Spinal Research as an undisputed leader in the field. In 2005 he received the inaugural Alan Dwyer Lifetime Achievement Medal 'For a lifetime of excellence in Spinal Research'.
Amongst his groundbreaking discoveries were the role of steroid hormones in influencing macrophage activity, the occurrence of healing microfractures in bone and their role in arthritis, the occurrence of wear particles around artificial joints and their role in joint loosening, and the occurrence of tears in young intervertebral discs, leading to disc degeneration and prolapse.

He retired as Director of the IMVS in 2005 but continued his research interests at the Adelaide Centre for Spinal Research.
The August 2013 edition of 'Inflammopharmacology' was a special issue dedicated to his life and work.

In 2002 he won the Premier's Award for Outstanding Community Achievement in South Australia.

In 2003 he was Australian of the Year for South Australia.
In 2005 he was made an Officer of the Order of Australia in the Queen's Birthday Honours, 'For service to medicine as a researcher, educator and administrator, particularly in the areas of disorders of the bones and joints and the pathology of the spine'.

Barrie was married for 55 years to fellow Charing Cross graduate Jane from South Wales. They had four children. Jane continues her distinguished work in Primary Care Psychiatry and Medical Education in Adelaide.

He maintained his love of rugby football and had many interests including ornithology, photography, art and Australia's outback.

In later years he struggled courageously with ever more disabling Parkinson's disease.

He will be much missed by his brothers, who shared an idyllic boyhood in rural Wales on a farm where our lives revolved around shooting, fishing and sport. He and Jane retained a deep love of Wales, and the National Library of Wales will be the repository for his written work, as he wished.

To me, his youngest brother, he was a greatly loved mentor and friend for as long as I can remember. Our holidays in South Australia with Barrie and Jane were always enlivened by his fund of anecdotes and trademark dry humour.
Updated:Wednesday 04-05-2016 14:38

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