In memory of a mentor – Professor Sir Robert (Bob) Elliott (3 Jan 1934 – 21 Aug 2020)

Sir Bob Elliott
Sir Bob Elliott (1934-2020)

Sir Peter Gluckman

When one is starting on a research career, it is hard to appreciate the difference between a supervisor and a mentor. Some people can be both, but mentorship is something to be treasured. Mentorship is not about the technical journey of science; rather, it is support of the personal journey, of relationships, of choices made, of pathways followed, and of networks joined.

I have been lucky in my research career to have had four remarkable but very different mentors.

Kaye Ibbertson was Foundation Professor of Endocrinology at the University of Auckland’s Medical School, and he introduced me to endocrine research even while I was an Otago medical student. Kaye then disrupted my medical registration year by taking me with him for three months to the Himalayas to undertake thyroid research with him, and under the sometimes watchful eye of Ed Hillary.

Melvin Grumbach in San Francisco was the doyen of pediatric endocrinology with whom I did my postdoctoral fellowship, and was a lifelong confidant until he died four years ago.

On my return to New Zealand, Mont Liggins gave me space and connections to develop my research line alongside his. So often Mont would gently support my research with ideas but never try and limit where I went.

And there was Sir Robert (Bob) Elliot who, sadly, died last week.

Bob and I first came into contact in Auckland’s venereal diseases clinic. The now removed building at the front of Auckland Hospital (roughly where the main entrance is) housed the VD clinic, in which I was assisting as a final year student in 1970. But also in the building was a recently arrived professor of paediatrics, as there was nowhere else to house him. I was a final year student; he was a newly arrived and brash Australian paediatrician. Yet, we gelled, and he was soon enthusing me in very long after-hours discussions about the importance of research and the value of lateral thinking. He was already trying to recruit me.

Soon after, I saw Bob in a very different light – on his ward rounds, with a twinkle in his eye, a crying baby would be in his arms being soothed. His clinical acumen was great, but it was his immense empathy and connection with young, sick children that was captivating.

Within two years of graduation, I was a junior lecturer and research fellow in his department. He never tried to influence what research I was doing. Indeed, there was no overlap between my interests and his. But what I learned was the value of thinking outside the box, not being afraid to look beyond dogma, and exploring to find what were the real underlying questions. He integrated me into the Australian paediatric research community, which was critical to expanding my understandings given the department at that time had only four staff.

And Bob was a rebel. He arrived in Auckland when paediatrics was a marginal activity. One professor of medicine (not Kaye Ibbertson) had called me into his office to tell me, in no uncertain terms, that I was throwing away a promising career by entering pediatrics. Town and gown tensions were rife in Princess Mary Hospital – the old cockroach ridden army wards that were then the children’s wards. As on-call junior doctors, we had to play all sorts of games to get children transferred to the academic team.

Adult medicine would not accept that paediatrics was a distinct entity. I was in the first cohort trained in paediatrics that did not first have to be examined in adult medicine when I sat the college exams in 1974. Paediatric disciplines were not being allowed to develop. Even when I returned to Auckland in 1980, as the only paediatric endocrinologist I provided two clinics a week free to Auckland hospital for many years, because otherwise there would have been none.

Bob was at the forefront of the change. He had to confront all these issues. Critically, he made the case for a separate research foundation for child health and got the support of Rotary. That was to become Cure Kids. He shifted from being head of department to being the first professor of child health research. The journey to a world class paediatric hospital and world class paediatric care was underway.

Bob’s research went in all sorts of directions. Perhaps his most life-saving discovery – and one that gave him global recognition – was work with Mike Starling and John Neutze on the role of prostaglandin PGE1 in maintaining the ductus arteriosus, the special vessel that is essential for fetal circulation but closes at birth. With some cardiac malformations it needs to be kept open until the baby can undergo cardiac surgery, and Bob’s discovery is still used globally. His partnership with Mike Starling was notable in other ways; Mike was sadly a severe hemiplegic from birth, and while Bob recognised that his significant disability might damage laboratory glassware, he had no hesitation in recruiting Mike to his team soon after he arrived.

Bob contributed to work in other areas such as cystic fibrosis, and especially type 1 diabetes. Retiring was not in his nature, and when he left the University he moved into biotech, exploring xenographic cell transplantation using virus-free pigs. He engaged in these projects until his death.

What did Bob teach me? The value of thinking outside the square, encouraging new ways and new ideas, not being intellectually afraid, and how to be really enthused by new knowledge that young scientists bring forward. And perhaps most memorable of all, how to approach and engage the most vulnerable and sick young child.

Thanks, Bob.