Sir Robert Stevenson Aitken, medical professor and university vice-chancellor; born April 16, 1901, died April 10, 1997

THERE must be many graduates of Aberdeen University who remember with affection Robert Aitken, Regius Professor of Medicine from 1939 - 1948.

His father, a Free Kirk Minister, like many other Scots at that time, emigrated from Glasgow to New Zealand. Robert Aitken was born in 1901 at Wyndham at the southernmost tip of South Island.

His father later moved to Gisborne, a very isolated little town on the Eastern edge of North Island. After school there Aitken went to Dunedin where he qualified in medicine in 1923. Two years later he won a Rhodes

Scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford.

Before he had finished his D.Phil, on research into factors controlling respiration during exercise, he was asked to join the Professorial Medical Unit at the London Hospital. It was then that Margaret Kane (Madge), a fellow student both at school and at Dunedin, joined him in London where they were married in 1928.

In 1935 Francis Fraser, the Director of the newly created British Postgraduate School, invited Aitken to join the outstanding team which he was building at Hammersmith. Here, with colleagues like Sharpey Schafer and Paul Wood, Aitken contributed important work on gastric haemorrhage and high blood pressure.

Four years later, when still only 38, he was appointed Regius Professor of Medicine at Aberdeen University, where, when War came, he had to carry a heavy burden of teaching. A student of those days has recalled for me the great interest and kindness that he and his wife showed to her, just an ordinary student (she modestly says), and to many other students. Everyone was sorry but understanding when the call came for him to return to Dunedin in 1948.

There, under his leadership as Vice-Chancellor, the difficult change from a university college to a fully independent university was undertaken and there were important developments in the Faculties of Medicine and Science and a Department of Physical Education was created. (With the All Blacks in mind perhaps!) It was at this time that Aitken started his important work for the Association of the Universities of the British Commonwealth.

In 1953 he was invited to become the Vice-Chancellor of Birmingham University. It must have been difficult to accept for he and his family had been very happy in New Zealand. But in Birmingham he was fortunate. His arrival coincided with the enormous post-war investment in higher education which allowed the university to double in size to 6500 students and for its annual budget to increase from #1.3m to #7m.

There were new buildings, new departments, and great developments of the Medical School with newly created disciplines of anaesthetics, virology, and psychiatry. A splendid University Dental Hospital was built.

Ahead of his times, Aitken insisted that students should play a role in the university administration and the President of the Students' Union became a member of the Court and Council of the University - and was allowed an extra year at the university so that these duties would not interfere with his academic studies!

Madge gave her husband full support. She was particularly concerned that the wives of many members of the staff, if they had young children, were isolated in a big city like Birmingham. She gave her support to the Wives Club and she organised a Christmas party for the children.

Aitken was a member and, from 1958 to 1961, Chairman of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, at the time of great importance in the development of higher education in this country. He was knighted in 1960.

After his retirement in

1968 he continued as

Deputy Chairman of the University Grants Committee and he was especially interested in the new University of Zimbabwe.

In 1984 Rob suffered a stroke. His intellect, however, was unimpaired and he learned to write with his left hand - a remarkable feat for

a man aged 83.

Six years later, when Madge was 90 and he was 89, they sent out their last Christmas card; it was a picture of them both sitting smiling at each other and underneath ''Score 179, not out!''

The next year Madge died. I and my wife used to visit him and often felt humbled by the courage with which he continued to face up to life despite his sorrow at the loss of Madge and his disability, for he was in a wheelchair. He lived in his own home until the week before he died. His life had all but spanned the twentieth century.