Dr Geoffrey Robert Gates AM

Born 12 April 1926 - Died 19 November 2009

A past RACGP president

Born in Liverpool, England, he was the only son of Kenneth Gates, an Anglican Priest and his wife Jessie. After being educated locally he went to St Chad’s School, at Prestatyn, North Wales and then on to St John’s School, Leatherhead, Surrey. He had no idea what influenced him to study medicine but he never had any inclination to study any other profession. He gained entrance to both Guys Hospital and Manchester University Medical School but chose Manchester because it enabled him to live at home while studying.

After he qualified in 1950 he was a house physician and then did a number of house jobs involving surgical training so that by 1953 when he was called up into the army he was posted as a Junior Surgical Officer to the 33rd General Hospital in Hong Kong. He married Moira Exley when he was on embarkation leave prior to going to Hong Kong. When he was demobilised in 1955, he was torn between migrating to Australia and returning to England. As he and his wife Moira still had parents in the United Kingdom he returned to England to take up a post as Resident Surgical Officer at Oldham Royal Infirmary.

He decided after all that general practice was his calling. When he graduated in 1950 there was no compulsory requirement for a year’s post-graduate hospital experience. However with his hospital experience and army experience he had acquired considerable clinical skills. He took up a position in general practice in Immingham in Lincolnshire. There under the guidance of Sydney Bedford, who was an excellent mentor, he learnt a great deal about general practice. He joined the Royal College of General Practitioners in 1964 to expand his knowledge of general practice. The College was already twelve years old. The greatest influence during his life as a doctor who wished to see suitable recognition of general practice as a medical specialty was Charles Wilson. He later became Lord Moran, Winston Churchill’s doctor. He stated that “a general practitioner was one who had fallen off the specialist ladder”. This denigration of general practice continued to spur him throughout his career to see training for general practice properly organised ending with some sort of assessment of doctors wishing to enter general practice.

In general practice in England, he missed using his procedural skills particularly his surgical skills. After 10 years in practice in Immingham, in 1967 he grasped the chance to migrate to Kellerberrin in the Central Wheatbelt of Western Australia to become a partner of Derek Stevenson who had an FRCS. This began a long and fruitful partnership over the next 19 years. He transferred membership from the Royal College to the Royal Australian College of General practitioners aided by a letter from Lord Hunt, Secretary of the English College to Howard Saxby, Chairman of the Australian College.

Kellerberrin had a 32 bed hospital and there he practised, what he described as ‘womb to tomb’ medicine. The partners were able to do most of their own surgery, obstetrics and anaesthetics. He loved teaching and he regularly had sixth year medical students and later Family Medicine Program trainees attached to his practice. He completed the College Examination in 1973 and was made a Fellow in 1974. Two years later he was invited to join the West Australian Faculty Board, travelling 200 kilometres to Perth for each Faculty Board meeting. He found the Board intimidating with a high quotient of intellectual activity. Its deliberations reinforced in him the belief that general practice could only become its own discipline when it had a formal training programme with a final examination as its end point coupled with continuing education and quality assurance.

It came as a surprise when he was asked to become the Western Australian Faculty representative on the RACGP College Council in 1977. He found himself in the company of people with formidable abilities and experience who felt the same way about general practice as he did. He was elected Chairman of the College Council in 1978 which again took him by surprise. This gave him an insight into the internal workings of the College. He served as a very competent and respected Chairman until 1981 when his term on Council expired.

He left Kellerberrin in 1986 to take up a post at Edith Cowan University and at the same time become a general practitioner at Lockridge in 1987.

He was awarded the Fellowship of the Royal College of General Practitioners in 1978, Membership of the Order of Australia in 1989 for services to medicine and an Honorary Fellowship of the Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners in 1990.

In 1988 he was asked by the College President, Eric Fisher, to stand for the presidency and was overwhelmingly elected. He assembled around him a number of members with good negotiating skills whom he could trust. For some 6 years the College had been pressing for a way to recognise higher quality general practice services. Advice received in 1988 indicated that a process of higher payment for GPs who demonstrated a professional commitment to quality services called Vocational Registration could best be done through Medicare. At the same time the College wanted the descriptions of Medicare services changed to more accurately reflect what was being done in a general practice consultation. The Health Minister, Neal Blewett, accepted both these College proposals in the first days of Geoffrey Gates presidency.

The question of Vocational Registration went before a Senate Select Committee on two occasions. Presentations to the Committee involved considerable expenditure of both time and money by the College and its members who appeared before the Committee. The chief negotiators were Geoffrey Gates, Graeme Miller and Michael Bollen. Vocational Registration became law in late 1989. Finally the College had established, in general practice, a nexus between standards and remuneration. This set the stage for the distribution of health care funds for training and quality in general practice. Here Geoffrey Gates had achieved his dream of the recognition that training and quality assurance would be the basis for future general practice. He paid tribute to the efforts of his predecessors who had prepared much of the ground for his success.

He served the Western Australia Faculty Board as Treasurer for about 10 years, was its Provost on 2 occasions and was an examiner for nearly 20 years. In 1998 he was honoured by the Faculty Board that named an Award for Long and Meritorious Service the Geoffrey Gates Award for members who met the criteria.

The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners awarded him its highest honour, Life Fellowship in 2008.

His wife Moira died in 1993 and in 2000 he married Patricia Creaser. He is survived by Patricia, his son John, daughter Jennifer, and grandchildren Cody and Georgina.

Over 200 hundred people attended a Service of Thanksgiving for his life at St George’s Cathedral, Perth on Saturday 28 November, when glowing eulogies were delivered for a much admired, respected and loved member of the community.

Eric Fisher

3 December 2009