Dr Alan (Eric) Fisher 1925-2016

A reflection of a life

‘In 2012, I was presenting to final year medical students from the University of Western Sydney on The Nature of General Practice: Ever Changing and Always the Same. The presentation included photos of Eric: one was of Eric dancing with a Tribal elder at an RACGP conference years ago.  I told the students that to me, he represented the essence of general practice: he was my role model.

This is not to say I aspired to emulate his achievements. I had long since given up expectations of that nature. My small role is in health reform: trying to influence health system re-design to recognise and reward quality general practice and through this, to better meet patients’ needs.

To me, Eric is a role model for everything general practitioners should be, and his professional evolution perfectly demonstrates the RACGP’s much quoted maxim: the Good GP never Stops Learning. Well Eric certainly never stopped learning.

Those advanced clinical and surgical skills were essential to the demands of relatively isolated rural practice. Eric’s account of those years of preparation and rural practice on the RACGP’s website should not be missed: how many of today’s young graduates prepare themselves in this manner?

Anne as his professional as well as life partner, brought her own extensive and complementary skills including practice management, school and public health, community advocacy and development. And more than deep clinical skills, they brought a philosophy of service, respect and compassion. What a formidable team they must have been in the many years they were in practice together – and how lucky was West Wyalong.

But when I first met Eric in 1983, I knew nothing of all this. I was a general practice registrar representing a national registrar network: a very new arrival on the RACGP Council or Board, and what a scary experience that was. With one lone female exception, the room was full of severe looking gentlemen in dark suits: the matters under discussion were serious, and the formal order of proceedings strictly adhered to. Eric was then the Honorary Secretary of Council, and even in this environment, his energy and clarity of thought stood out – yet at the same time, he was a master of these arcane processes.

I remained closely involved with general practice politics through the college for some years, and so worked closely with Eric and others on the political dramas of the day – and there were many, including some which seriously threatened the future of general practice. Eric’s leadership, passion and political skills were much in evidence over these years, especially as President in 1986-7. In my imagination, I always saw him as ‘Eric the Lion’: fearless, frank and forthright.

In later years, he remained closely involved with the college in many different roles. He has had countless leadership roles within and external to the college – far too many to mention here, and remained an acute, astute and analytical member of the Finance Audit and Risk Committee until the present day. Like others who love the RACGP and what it stands for, he was its sternest critic: always quick to call the college out when he thought it had strayed from its central purpose, or governance processes were slipping, or responses to members’ wishes were inadequate. 

Until this year, I cannot recall Eric ever having missed the annual college AGM – or for that matter, having nothing to say on the day. His absence from this year’s conference and AGM was noted by many, with a sense that an important era in the history of general practice was coming to an end.

In closing I would like to return to Eric as a clinician. About a decade ago, I referred a relative of mine to Eric. The patient was frail and difficult in terms of both his complex conditions and his irascible personality. They got on famously. In addition, I got to tell students and registrars about my personal experience of Eric the doctor– in his eighties, doctor’s bag in hand, still doing house calls for his small cohort of complex patients. It is extraordinary that he only retired last year at the age of 90.

Eric’s care for my difficult in-law as he inevitably declined was, of course, immensely skilled and deeply compassionate. It led to many conversations about the nature of illness and why people become ill, and I came to realise just how much this issue had become central to his thinking and philosophy.

Scientific advances and new technologies support clinical diagnosis and management, but rarely answer the critical questions of why this person has become ill at this time, and whether a deeper understanding of the evolution of their illness will aid their healing process?

This complete merging of the professional and the personal seems to be point at which Eric’s long, multi-faceted and utterly admirable journey ends. General practice and the college have lost an outstanding pioneer and leader, and his many colleagues have lost an outstanding friend and mentor.

Thank you Eric: we will all miss you greatly, especially at AGMs in the years to come.’

This tribute and reflection on his life is written by close friend Dr Di O’Halloran.

This tribute originally published in 2016 on the NSW&ACT Tributes page.