A Queensland medical dynasty

Dr Charles Roe AM

Charles Roe AM is the last surviving member of the first intake of Queensland University Medical School students, who graduated 1940-1942.

At 98, he lives in a house at the remote southern tip of South Stradbroke Island, where the advent of solar power has meant he no longer relies on kerosene lamps.

Charles Roe AM in his house at the remote southern tip of South Stradbroke Island.

Charles Roe AM in his house at the remote southern tip of South Stradbroke Island.

It adjoins land bought in 1882 by his grandfather, Reginald (Reggie) Heber Roe. As a young classics and mathematics graduate, Reggie arrived in Brisbane Town from Oxford in 1876 to become the second headmaster of Brisbane Grammar School. An educationalist with a passionate belief in education for everyone, Reggie went on to become the first Vice-Chancellor of The University of Queensland.

From the earliest days, the lives of the Roe family would become closely interwoven with the Brisbane medical community. That formidable champion of women’s health, Dr Lilian Cooper, performed a hysterectomy on Reggie’s wife, Maud, on the kitchen table of the Roe family home at Indooroopilly. Dr Jefferis Turner – first resident surgeon at the Hospital for Sick Children, and famous for linking childhood lead poisoning to weathered paint – stepped in to attend a young member of Charles’s mother’s family, who was in the final stages of typhoid fever. The quietly spoken Turner (nicknamed ‘Gentle Annie’) earned the family’s gratitude as another doctor had refused to make the journey.

“They were different times,” says Charles. “Generally speaking, despite infections, health was better. The food was better – it was simpler – and they had more exercise. They were also far more resilient.”

Dr Charles Roe

‘The reason I went into medicine’

That resilience was born out later when Maude suffered abdominal pains while on South Stradbroke Island. With her were Toby and Madge, the youngest of her six children. It was fortunate that her third child, Stanley – Charles’s father – had chosen a career in medicine and was now a surgeon. Says Charles: “Madge went over to the mainland and rang my father and he went down in the train. Madge took him over to the island and he examined Granny. He diagnosed an obstructed bowel, bundled her up, and got her to St Helen’s Hospital in Brisbane where he operated. The bowel had been twisted around an adhesion from the hysterectomy.”

Dr Arthur Stanley Roe was Queensland’s first Rhodes Scholar, and in 1904 he followed his father to Oxford. He returned home in 1913 and assisted a general surgeon for 12 months before setting up as a specialist urologist – Brisbane’s first. In 1917, Stanley introduced a new German invention – the cystoscope – to the Mater Public Hospital, where he established the first urology department in an Australian public hospital.

Charles says he admired his father greatly. “He was an excellent surgeon. He made a great deal of difference to many people’s lives. He is the reason I went into medicine.”

Dr Arthur Stanley Roe was Queensland’s first Rhodes Scholar.

Dr Arthur Stanley Roe was Queensland’s first Rhodes Scholar.

It was at UQ Medical School that Charles got to know fellow student, Esther Gilmore Wilson, who would become his wife. Esther was one of only three women who graduated from UQ Medical School in those first years. She and Charles married in 1943 and she ran a general practice at Yeronga while raising four children.

The Pacific War

In 1941, World War II had entered the Pacific and the huge expansion of the military effort in the region meant there was pressure to train more doctors.

“As a medical school student, life was very pleasant but the war was on everyone’s mind,” recalls Charles.

Dr Charles Roe

“Almost as soon as we had our results, we were allocated our hospital places. There were two of us sent to work at the Brisbane General Hospital’s casualty department. We were told to be there at 8 o’clock on the following Monday morning. I had two days to get registered as a doctor. Sister Taylor ran the department. Basically, she said:

‘Good morning –there’s the examination room out at the back. Patients will enter here and when you need the next patient you ring this bell.’

Dr Charles Roe

She hit the bell and we saw 70 patients that day. The hospital ran with a superintendent, four registrars and about 16 resident junior doctors. We often found ourselves working 90 hours a week – one week I worked 120.”

Charles served for about a year as a resident in the Brisbane hospital before joining the Royal Australian Air Force. He was sent to Port Moresby. “I’d only been there about six weeks when I was posted to an operational fighter squadron,” he says. “At 24, I was their medical officer.”

“It was a choice posting. There were a great many Japanese installations in the islands all around. We were all very young.  Most of the pilots were about 19 or 20 years old."

“It was a choice posting. There were a great many Japanese installations in the islands all around. We were all very young. Most of the pilots were about 19 or 20 years old."

After the war, back in Brisbane with a growing family, Charles joined the urological team at the Mater Public Hospital. “I also worked with my father, who was still in private practice,” says Charles. “I learnt ‘the trade’. It was all hands-on training – all open surgery. I probably assisted at 30 to 40 prostatectomies before I did a full one myself. Eventually, I found myself senior urologist at the Mater.”

Charles retired from the Mater in 1972, but continued in private practice. In 1977, the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons awarded him a Fellowship in recognition of his distinguished career as a urologist.

The next generation

In some respects, the meeting of Charles Roe and Esther Gilmore Wilson at UQ Medical School was a case of history coming full circle. Esther’s father, Benjamin Gilmore Wilson, known as Gilmore, had been a Brisbane Grammar student in Reggie’s time, and was encouraged to pursue medicine by his headmaster. Reggie explained that his son, Stanley, was enjoying medicine at Oxford. Young Gilmore took the advice and went to Sydney University. Dr Gilmore Wilson became a respected general practitioner in Ipswich. With practitioners across five generations, the Wilsons became one of Queensland’s most prominent medical families.

It’s no surprise that three of Charles and Esther’s four children – as living combination of the Roe and Wilson genes – followed their parents into medicine. Dorothy, Barbara and Frances all became GPs. Frances’s daughter Esther has also followed in the family footsteps and is working as a doctor.