Neil Edwin CARSON (1927 - 2020)

Professor of Community Medicine (1975 - 1992)

Neil Carson

Emeritus Professor Neil Carson AO, who died last week aged 92, came from a family of builders. As a doctor, he chose to follow a different path, but will be remembered for the bridges he built between the worlds of academia and community medicine.

Neil’s influence on general practice was profound. He came to Monash as the foundation Professor of Community Medicine (now General Practice) in 1975, and five years later was appointed head of the newly established Department of Community Medicine. A visionary and entrepreneur by nature, he realised early on in his career that GPs needed specialist training beyond what was offered in the standard medical degree, and was determined that their skills should be seen as on a par with those of other medical specialists.

Neil was an ideal choice for the role, having set up the Blackburn Clinic in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs in 1952. The practice was, in many ways, a model for the future, and the first “super clinic” providing services such as pharmacy, dentistry, chiropody, and basic pathology and radiology. At Monash, he set about transforming the department from a small unit with meagre resources into one of the largest general practice teaching departments in Australia.

Neil chose his staff well. He was known as a talent-spotter par excellence who preferred workaholics to talkers, “... because you get your money’s worth”, he joked. One such employee was Leon Piterman AM, former Pro Vice-Chancellor and President of Berwick and Peninsula campuses, and Professor in the Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences. “Neil was a great teacher, manager and organiser,” he reflected. “He was also very entrepreneurial. His strength was in building teams and in getting funding. He was charming and engaging, and it’s thanks to Neil that we have a proper teaching program, and our own defined body of knowledge.”

Today, the department boasts an extraordinary roll of alumni, including the late Professor Chris Silagy AO, founder of the Australasian Cochrane Centre; the former President of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, Professor Michael Kidd AM, to whom Neil was an early mentor; and Emeritus Professor John Murtagh AO, author of the magnum opus General Practice. Many deans of medical schools around the country came up through its ranks.

Neil’s clinical experience had shown him that medicine was more than just a process of diagnosis, and he established a number of training programs, including one in communication skills, to teach doctors how to listen. He was instrumental in the establishment of the Master of Family Medicine degree, as well as the Diploma by Distance Education in Family Medicine, which attracted many applicants from rural and remote parts of the country. He recognised that the needs of a bush GP were more complex than those of their urban colleagues, and as such was a strong advocate for a proposal to establish a Centre for Rural Health based at LaTrobe Regional Health in Moe, for which he helped raise funds in his typically colourful fashion. When it opened its doors in 1992, it became Australia’s first multidisciplinary, multi-level rural health academic unit.

An impressive networker, Neil forged friendships and liaisons with many overseas universities, notably Queen’s in Belfast. He was also an early proponent of information technology, developing and testing computer applications for use in the day-to-day operations of a general practice, thus creating one of the earliest medical records systems.

Neil Edwin Carson was born on 15 October, 1927. He attended Box Hill High School, then Carey Grammar School, followed by Melbourne University, where he graduated MBBS in 1950. After spending a year as a resident medical officer at Geelong Hospital, he started the Blackburn Clinic in a small house on Whitehorse Road, recognising the need for specialist physicians in growth corridors.

During his years in general practice, he also qualified as a physician. He could have continued down this path by becoming a consultant, but instead chose to focus on improving general practice. In 1967, he was awarded the double distinction of obtaining both the FRACGP and the MRACP by examination.

In the ’50s and ’60s, Neil held positions at the Royal Children’s Hospital and the Royal Melbourne Hospital, and served as assistant physician at Box Hill Hospital (1967-1975).

Neil wore many hats during his career. An important one was that of part-time commissioner on the National Hospital and Health Services Commission. In 1983, he was appointed the founding president of the Australian Association for Academic General Practice (now known as the Australasian Association for Academic Primary Care), a role he held until 1989.

Throughout his career, Neil was involved in examining at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels, especially in the areas of practice management, clinical medicine, and community health. He was a prominent leader in the development of the original examination for membership of the RACGP — the first college in the world to offer a comprehensive examination to test knowledge, aptitude and skills.

Other appointments included Censor-in-Chief at the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (1973-1976); member of the RACGP council; and overseas examiner to the College of General Practitioners Singapore (now the College of Family Practitioners Singapore).

Neil participated in a number of RACGP research projects, particularly clinical areas pertinent to community practice, educational research, and assessment. He published articles mainly on general practice, and co-authored a book on migraine. His expertise on how to improve practice management was widely sought.

After leaving Monash in 1992 and being appointed Emeritus Professor, he became Professor of Family Medicine in the United Arab Emirates, and spent two years at the Al Ain Medical School, where he was involved in developing the regional medical journal, Al Hakeem.

Neil was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in 1993 for service to education, particularly in the field of community medicine, and given the rare honour of an Honorary Doctorate of Medicine (MD) by Monash University in 1994. The RACGP recognised his services with a Rose-Hunt Award in 1992, and in 2004 he was made a life fellow.

Neil outlived his wife, Bonnie, whom he married in 1951 and with whom he had four children – three daughters and a son. For a man who encouraged general practitioners to be imaginative about the future, to broaden their perspectives and take on new challenges, his legacy will reverberate through future decades.

Neil Carson died on June 10, 2020.

Edited version of article published in The Insider, June 18 2020.