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Irvine, Robin Eliot [Bobby] (1920–2002), geriatrician, was born at Lord's Meade, Hurtmore Road, Godalming, Surrey, on 27 September 1920, the son of Andrew Leicester Irvine, a classics master at Charterhouse, and Eleanor Mildred Irvine, née Lloyd. He was educated at Manor House preparatory school, Horsham (1929–34), Winchester College (1934–8), and King's College, Cambridge, where he was an exhibitioner in classics. However, he decided to read medicine, graduating BA in 1942, and received his clinical training at Guy's Hospital, where he was awarded the Golding Bird medal and where, after qualification in 1944, he completed his house posts. He joined the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1945, before serving as regimental medical officer in the Middle East and Palestine. He was invalided out of the service with the rank of captain in 1947 because of jaundice and tuberculosis from which he made a complete recovery. On 30 July that year he married, in Guernsey, Florence Margaret (Peggy) Walter (d. 1996), a Guy's Hospital nurse. She was the daughter of W. R. Walter, of Guernsey. They had three sons and four daughters.

After discharge from the Royal Army Medical Corps, Irvine held posts at Cheltenham General Hospital, where he passed the MRCP examination in 1948, the Brompton Hospital, and Guy's Hospital. In 1952 he was appointed senior medical registrar at the Royal Victoria Hospital, Newcastle, where he gained his MD three years later. Competition for consultant posts in general medicine proved very severe, with forty applicants for every consultant post. This was a factor in his decision in 1956 to retrain in acute geriatric medicine at Sunderland General Hospital under the tutelage of Oscar Olbrich and Lyn Woodford-Williams.

In 1958 Irvine was appointed consultant geriatrician to the Hastings health authority, based at St Helen's Hospital, Hastings, a ‘chronic sick’ unit in an old infirmary, with responsibility for 300 patients in four hospitals with very limited medical help. He noted anomalies: every ward had curtains around the patients' beds except the geriatric wards, and the matron of one of the voluntary hospitals refused a reference to any nurse who applied to work in the old infirmary. Irvine believed the ideal geriatric department should be ‘age related’ to serve patients over seventy-five years, with younger patients admitted as appropriate. He ignored the patient waiting list because it represented the old style of geriatric medicine. He practised ‘Progressive Patient Care’, which enabled him to discharge so-called ‘long-stay’ patients—indeed one of these became a porter in the very hospital where he had been a patient. A newly appointed matron improved nursing ratios, and with her help he introduced open visiting hours to the wards. He recruited keen staff to transform the long-stay geriatric unit at Battle. He and his orthopaedic colleague, Michael Devas, established a unique and world-renowned ortho-geriatric service, which was characterized by the remarkable teamwork of doctors, nurses, therapists, and almoners. When he retired his unit had increased admission rates from 600 patients a year to 4000 a year through 200 beds with two wards in the new district general hospital; two day hospitals had been opened, staff increased to four consultants, and his wife had started a ‘meals on wheels’ service.

Irvine was an enthusiastic teacher and for eleven years was Hastings' first clinical tutor. He set up a general practitioner training scheme in 1975 and played a key role in establishing the local postgraduate centre. He had the unnerving habit of appearing asleep during clinical presentations and then asking very searching questions. His unit became a place of pilgrimage for visitors from home and abroad and was a training ground in particular for New Zealand senior registrars in geriatric medicine. He was visiting professor in Alberta and a visiting lecturer in Australia and New Zealand.

Irvine energetically supported geriatric medicine in the Royal College of Physicians (of which he was elected a fellow in 1968), the Royal College of Nursing, and the National Council for the Care of Old People. He wrote some sixty clinical papers and six chapters in books, and co-authored (with a nurse and a social worker) a textbook, The Older Patient (1968), which went into three editions, as well as writing many non-attributed editorials. For many years, he acted as the British Geriatrics Society's unofficial historian and wrote numerous obituaries. The Department of Health and Social Security appointed him their consultant adviser on geriatric medicine (1982–5) and later he served with the NHS Health Advisory Service. The British Geriatrics Society elected him its president (1981–4) and he was appointed CBE in 1983 for services for elderly people. He was a charismatic, ebullient, larger than life character with a wonderful warm personality, a boyish laugh, and a great sense of fun. On one occasion, he led colleagues in a lusty British singsong when trying to outshine competing Italian geriatricians. At heart, however, he was a modest man who always acknowledged the achievements of others.

Irvine retired to St Peter Port, Guernsey, in 1986 to enjoy golf, bridge, bird watching, walking, drama, music, good food, and friendship. Parkinsonism and inoperable cancer of the rectum clouded his later years but his strong Roman Catholic faith sustained him and he was proud to be a knight of the Holy Sepulchre. He died at St Peter Port on 25 December 2002 from metastatic carcinoma. He was survived by his seven children and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Michael John Denham

Sources  

‘Geriatrics as a medical specialty’, interview by H. Houghton, 19 April 1991, BL NSA, F3270–1 · British Geriatrics Society Archive, London · BMJ, 326 (25 Jan 2003), 226 · The Independent (5 Feb 2003) · British Geriatrics Society Newsletter (March 2003), 1–4 · Munk's Roll, 11, 288; munksroll.rcplondon.ac.uk/Biography/Details/5159, accessed on 26 June 2011 · personal knowledge (2012) · private information (2012) · b. cert.

Archives  

 

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BL NSA, ‘Geriatrics as a medical specialty’, interview with H. Houghton, 19 April 1991, F3270–1


Likenesses  

obituary photographs · photograph, repro. in BMJ, 326 · photograph, British Geriatrics Society, London