Dr Robert Hamilton Orton

Personal Details

Dr Robert Hamilton Orton

05/04/1906 to 21/12/1966

Place of birth: Melbourne

Nationality: Australian

CRN: 715521

Education and qualifications

General education

Wesley College; University of Melbourne with a record of first class honours and prizes, including the Exhibition in Medicine. Orton also excelled in mathematics, this providing a basis for skills in electronics, radio construction and precision engineering.

Primary medical qualification(s)

MB BS, Melbourne, 1930

Initial Fellowship and type

FFARCS by Election

Year of Fellowship


Other qualification(s)

DA (Melbourne) by thesis, 1948

Professional life and career

Postgraduate career

After medical posts at the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne, Orton entered general practice there in 1934, but concentrated on anaesthesia and became a full time specialist in 1937. Appointed honorary anaesthetist to several hospitals, his interest in anaesthesia for thoracic surgery led him first to become consultant at the Austin Hospital and then full-time salaried anaesthetist to the thoracic unit at the Alfred Hospital in 1946, becoming Director of Anaesthesia in 1950. Ill-health forced his retirement from clinical practice in 1957, but he sat on the Hospital’s Board of Studies and continued as Director of Anaesthesia until 1966, when he was appointed Director of Electronics, successfully encouraging the wider use of instrumentation.

Professional interests and activities

Orton made significant contributions to the development of thoracic and, from 1948, cardiac surgery, using his knowledge of physiology, pharmacology and electronics to good effect. His engineering skills allowed him to manufacture equipment, for surgeon and anaesthetist, that would not have otherwise been available in Australia for some considerable time, especially under war-time conditions. On the broader front insistence on better pre-operative fluid resuscitation led to improvements in the outcome of emergency abdominal and trauma surgery, and to a joint Department of Anaesthesia and Resuscitation (= intensive care) in 1953. He also insisted on the proper evaluation of all new drugs, and was co-author of a training manual, “Anaesthetic Methods” published between 1946 and 1954. Along side these clinical activities he made major contributions to the organisations of the specialty. He was president of the Australian society (1946-7), member of the Examining Board of the Melbourne DA from 1948 (and its director from 1956), a founder member of the Australasian Board of Faculty in 1952, and its second Dean (1955-9). He was an honorary member of the New Zealand Society (1947), foundaton Fellow of the Australasian Faculty (1952), Embley Orator (of the BMA’s Victorian Branch) in 1957, and in 1961 was made an Honorary Fellow of the UK Faculty.

Other biographical information

The above describes a significant body of achievement for a healthy man, but Orton developed both insulin dependent diabetes and pulmonary tuberculosis in his third decade, treatment of the latter by artificial pneumothorax leaving him with impaired respiratory function. His initial specialization was driven by the perception that anaesthesia was a suitable career choice given his impairment, but diabetic atherosclerosis brought it to a sad and premature end. His ‘interactions’ with, and comments upon, surgeons (often face to face it seems) were legendary (sample: “if his brains were dynamite, they wouldn’t blow his hat off would they”!).


Author and Sources

Author: Prof Tony Wildsmith

Sources and any other comments: I thank Dr Christine Ball for reviewing this commentary and for help in obtaining details not provided in the main souces: (1) Obituary. Med J Aus May 6 1967: 935-8. (2) ‘Alfred Hospital – Faces and Places’ 1996. Melbourne: Alfred Healthcare Group 114-6