Dr Keith Whish OAM 1925-2016

A tribute and reflection

The teacher who is indeed wise does not bid you to enter the house of his wisdom but rather leads you to the threshold of your mind."- Kahlil Gibran

‘In 1983 I took my wife and infant son from Canberra to Inverell, in order to undertake a training general practice term in Keith Whish‘s practice. I went via Sydney, to have my mandatory pre-placement meeting with a Medical Educator in the Family Medicine Program, who told me that Keith was  “probably the  best training supervisor in Australia … no, make that the best in Australia”.

I spent the next 7 years in Inverell, initially as a trainee, then as a partner in Keith’s practice. During those years Keith was much more than a supervisor and partner – he was a mentor, surrogate parent, counsellor, confessor and protector, a role that he undertook for dozens of GP trainees over 30 years. When I left after seven years, keen to undertake a broader role in medical education, I went with Keith’s blessing, even though he could reasonably have been disappointed in losing my support at a time when there was an increasing rural medical workforce shortage. Keith always took delight in the achievements of others, and put their needs ahead of his own.

Keith suffered our mistakes, our over-confidence (and downright arrogance on occasions), our bouts of self doubt and our occasional tantrums with equanimity and grace - ever supportive, ever reliable, ever helping us back on our feet and to regain our equilibrium in the challenging environment of rural medical practice.

He taught us that to be good doctors we had to meet the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of our patients, and that to do that effectively we had to make sure that our own physical, emotional and spiritual health was intact. Along with his wife Philippa he taught us the essential value of “community”.

For someone with such a commanding presence, indeed gravitas, he was the gentlest of instructors – he modelled experiential learning before there was a literature about it, by giving clear and supportive feedback and helping us to reflect on each new situation that we encountered. There are many things that I learned from Keith about the art of medical practice that I still frequently quote to myself or to those who are training under me.

"You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him find it within himself." - Galileo Galilee

Keith’s contribution to the development of future generations of doctors was a reflection of his broader work in the community.  He and Philippa developed one of the first practical assistance programs for aboriginal people in NSW, with a focus on adequate housing, education and access to health care, at a time when community understanding of aboriginal Australian culture was grossly inadequate.

Keith also led the establishment of community development programs including the establishment of the McLean Retirement Village, now regarded as a model for effective aged care community development, and the establishment of local parkland and reserve programs around Inverell.

Keith epitomised the quintessential Australian values of understated determination, passion and commitment to others. He remains the most significant personal and professional role model in my life.’

This tribute and reflection on the life of Dr Keith Whish is written by close friend Dr Simon Willcock.

This tribute originally published in 2015 on the NSW&ACT Tributes page.