A popular and well respected general practitioner
At 6 ft 5 ins (196 cm) in height, he was a prominent figure despite his wish to avoid the spotlight. He will be remembered by his medical colleagues as a tireless worker with a tremendous gift of discerning what was truly important and getting on with fixing it, or improving the situation if no cure was available. Bob was a quiet achiever with a tremendous work rate, and a warm and thoroughly professional manner. He inspired confidence in all those he met. He was a natural teacher, in later years helping to form the next generation of GPs by imparting his unique blend of wisdom, knowledge and commonsense. Cum scientia caritas* William Robert Brien was born in Sydney on 20 September 1932, the elder child of Cecil and Mavis Brien. His younger sister Pam still lives at Moonee Beach. Bob showed an early interest in Medicine – following his secondary education at Sydney Boys’ High School, he gained entry to the Faculty of Medicine at Sydney University. After graduation he worked at the Royal Newcastle Hospital for 3 years, gaining broad experience for a long and fruitful career in general practice. During this time he married his first wife Janet and they had two sons, Michael and David, followed subsequently by daughters Elizabeth and Megan.
In 1956 Bob moved his family to Port Macquarie where he joined Dr David Morton in a very busy practice. General practice obstetrics was the norm and Bob quickly became known as ‘the baby doctor’, as well as practising the full range of hospital and community medicine from general practice. Somehow he found time to serve on the local council for a term, consistent with the broad vision for which he was noted, and his intense curiosity about an eclectic range of issues. He was made a life member of Apex as well as playing a leading role in the building of the hydrotherapy pool at the old Hastings Hospital.
During his time in Port Macquarie, Bob began to develop an interest in medicine abroad. Working via the American Care program he travelled first to Indonesia, and later to Afghanistan, spending several months there on each occasion. He was to travel extensively in his later years as well as working in the Middle East throughout much of the 1980s. He was ever the adventurer, with interests ranging from ham radio to travel, photography, gardening and nature.
In 1975 Bob left general practice in Port Macquarie. Around this time he married Shirley, known by all as Lee. They settled at North Beach on the mouth of the Bellinger River. Bob worked as a GP here, as well as at Urunga and Bellingen, including hospital commitments at the latter place. By 1981 Bob was ready for another challenge and began the first of a number of stints in the Middle East.
His first position was as Chief Medical Officer at the King Fahd Military Hospital in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He remained in this post for several years. He and Lee next moved on to Bahrain, where he became Department Head of the Accident and Emergency Health Clinic for the Bahrain Defence Forces. He must have made a good impression as he soon became the private physician for the Royal Family of Al Kalifa, a position he held for 5 years. How many Australian GPs have served as personal physician to a king? Around the mid 1980s, during one of his trips back to Australia, he found time to be the Director of the Emergency Department of Prince of Wales Hospital in Sydney for some months.
He also did regular locums for his GP colleagues on the mid north coast of NSW when back at home for longer spells. Once again Bob was ‘head hunted’ for the Middle East, back to Saudi Arabia where at Al Baha he became Director of both Primary Health Clinics and Accident and Emergency. Still in Saudi Arabia he moved on to Dharhan where he was Director of Primary Health Clinics at the King Fahd Medical Complex.
Interspersed with his work in the Middle East were a number of trips throughout Asia. He worked in Java, the Punjab, and China, where he was actually teaching acupuncture for a time! By now the build up to the first Gulf war was underway, so Bob and Lee headed back to Australia. They settled in the Orara Valley near Coffs Harbour. Bob became a valued and vital source of GP locums around the region. Without such regular support the hard working GPs of the region would not have been able to keep going. He was a wonderful locum. He would receive his handover and send you off for a well earned rest, with complete piece of mind. In fact he usually managed to also sort out some of your unresolved difficult clinical problems, drawing on his vast fund of wisdom and knowledge to help. In short the ideal locum! If he was doing a locum for another practice in town he would come over at lunchtime to have a chat.
Bob was active in a wide range of medical pursuits. He became an external clinical teacher with the Family Medicine Program of The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners and later North Coast GP Training Ltd. His contribution to the future of general practice was immense through helping to train its young apprentices. He was active within the Mid North Coast Division of General Practice, including a period as Chairman of its Board. He received a Ten Year Service Award from the Alliance of NSW Divisions of General Practice. He was a practice visitor with Australian General Practice Accreditation Ltd, visiting general practices all over Australia to assess their compliance with the Practice Standards of the RACGP. Bob was also a source of wise counsel to his fellow GPs and all with whom he had regular contact. He could be relied upon to help identify what was really important when things became unclear.
Bob bore his final illness with great fortitude. He could have expected a longer innings as his father had made it well into his nineties! Alas it was not to be. He carried on travelling and enjoying life with Lee, his children and grandchildren as long as he possibly could. He will long be remembered by his family, medical colleagues, patients and all with whom he came in contact. Bob is survived by his wife Lee, his children Michael, David, Elizabeth and Megan, three grandchildren (Erin, Ella and Angus), stepdaughter Kath and her children, James and Sophie.
Dr John Kramer
1981–2007 Chairman, Mid North Coast Division of General Practice
11 May 2007
* Cum scientia caritas, the motto of The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, translates loosely as ‘With skill and tender loving care’ – a suitable epitaph for a wonderful man.