Intelligent, dynamic, engaging, driven, entrepreneurial, a leader
Emeritus Professor Neil Carson AO served as Head of the Department of General Practice at Monash University from 1975–1992. (RACGP Archive)
Professor Carson was a pioneer of general practice, his influence on the academic discipline in Australia profound and still felt to this day.
A pupil of Box Hill High School in Melbourne, he later attended Carey Grammar School where he received the Doery Scholarship. From a family of builders, Professor Carson decided early on to follow a different path, going on to graduate from Medicine at the University of Melbourne in 1950.
He initially served as a residential medical officer at Geelong Hospital, but chose a career in general practice and established the Blackburn Clinic. This was one of the first group practices in Victoria, and one that would act as a future model.
In 1967, he was awarded the double distinction of obtaining both Fellowship of the RACGP and membership of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians.
Professor Carson was always one step ahead, however, recognising the need for specialist GP training.
He took a leading role in establishing the necessary pathways when in 1975 he was appointed foundation professor of Community Medicine (now General Practice) at Monash University, becoming head of the department five years later.
Skilled at picking out people’s strengths, Professor Carson chose his recruits to expand his department accordingly, among them Emeritus Professor John Murtagh AO.
The pair first met at RACGP functions, and got to know one another at the first WONCA conference held in Melbourne in 1972.
‘He was amazing to work with; loyal, supportive and caring for his staff. I was very impressed with him,’ Professor Murtagh told newsGP.
‘He was a leader, he made things happen. But he did tend to appoint people who he knew got jobs done. He’d seek out hard workers, and he expected results there was no doubt about that.’
Professor Carson set up the department from scratch, but it was no easy feat. He was competing with other, long-established departments while having to overcome biases against the discipline.
But Professor Murtagh says he was the right man for the job.
‘He had a lot of drive, he had a lot of knowledge, he was gregarious and people were attracted to that,’ Professor Murtagh said.
‘Any biases they had against general practice departments, his personality tended to make them feel a bit warmer towards it.’
Soon after his appointment, Professor Carson travelled to well-known departments of general practice around the world to establish partnerships (many of which still exist to this day) and bring back ideas to Monash.
The department soon became known for its high standards of teaching and for being at the frontier of new developments, helping to elevate the discipline and attract talented young registrars.
‘People just sort of became GPs because they thought it was a good thing to do if they went to the country … but there was no official training or recognition. Neil and others made a mark and helped put general practice on the map in this country,’ Professor Murtagh said.
‘Neil tried to set up the department as a model. We developed systems. We relied on good GPs to train our people – it was a national effort. It wasn’t just us sitting in a department, it was all the people being involved.
‘He demanded standards, he was a person of quality and people would recognise that when they came to the department. In actual fact, the Dean Graeme Schofield called the department the “jewel in the crown of the faculty” very early on, which was a great tribute to Neil and the team.’
A number of talented registrars have come through Monash, among them Professor Danielle Mazza, now head of the Department of General Practice, and Australia’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer and past RACGP President, Professor Michael Kidd AM.
Accepted into the training program in 1988, Professor Kidd described first meeting Professor Carson as a young registrar as ‘daunting’.
‘He was one of the senior figures in Australian general practice, one of the leaders in the RACGP and clearly a figure of respect,’ Professor Kidd told newsGP.
‘But what I found very quickly was that just like all good GPs, he was very good at making people feel comfortable very quickly and talking to you like an equal. He rapidly became someone I could talk to about my ideas for my career and what I wanted to do.
‘He was also very good at finding out what people were good at and then helping them to develop their skills in those areas, and I really, really appreciated that.’
For Professor Kidd, that was the role of computers in medicine. Professor Carson was among the first to introduce computerisation into his practice, and took Professor Kidd under his wing.
‘It was very early work in that field, but of course that’s an area that became and still is an area of my research activity 30-odd years later,’ Professor Kidd said.
Professor Carson served as Head of the Department of General Practice at Monash until his retirement in 1992. He went on to be appointed Professor of Family Medicine at the University of United Arab Emirates.
He took on various roles during his career, including founding President of the Australian Association for Academic General Practice (now the Australasian Association for Academic Primary Care) from 1983–89.
Professor Carson was an active member of the RACGP, where he undertook several high-profile positions, including Chair of Victoria Faculty, and helped to develop the original examination for RACGP membership. He was awarded the Rose-Hunt Award, the college’s highest accolade, in 1992.
He was extensively acknowledged for his work, appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in 1993, and given an Honorary Doctorate of Medicine by Monash University in 1994.
Life has a way of coming full circle, and in 2004 Professor Kidd, who was then serving as RACGP president, presented his mentor with Life Fellowship – a moment he describes as ‘a real honour’.
‘Neil was a great mentor. He was very popular with the deans at Monash because he was delivering what deans want to see, and he was very popular with the students because they loved the teaching experience of doing general practice because it was really practical,’ Professor Kidd said.
‘Then there’s the legacy of the people he trained who went on to have senior leadership roles. I’ve often described it as being like the ripple effect – you throw a stone in a pond, you don’t know where all the ripples go, you lose sight of them.
‘That’s how I like to think of the impact that Neil had in his career; he threw a lot of pebbles in ponds, a lot of ripples and a lot of things happening all around the world.’
To this day, Professor Kidd draws on lessons from his former professor.
‘Often when I’d have a problem, I’d think “What would Neil have done in this situation?”,’ he said.
‘One of the things he said to me was, “You should be interested in the people who you’re working with outside of what’s happening in the university department; you should know about what’s happening in their lives with their families and their clinical practices because we’re a Department of Family Medicine, the department should be like a family” – and it was.
‘That sort of ethos is set down by the leader of an institution, and so it was just one of the many things I learnt for him.’
Among all his achievements, Professor Carson was also a family man. He was a husband to Bonnie and father to their four children.
‘It’s always a challenge to be a family person, but he included them in his overseas trips. He was a good family man,’ Professor Murtagh said.
‘It’s general practice but it’s also called family practice, and that was seen in someone like Neil.’
While general practice faces its challenges, it is thanks to the influence of people like Professor Carson who have helped to build the discipline’s reputation, which have seen it evolve, the value of which cannot be underestimated in the present day.
‘Part of the successful response [to the pandemic] in Australia has been that we have such a strong system of primary healthcare based on strong general practice, and that legacy is building on the expertise and experience of many people in our discipline and especially in our college. But, most importantly, people like Neil,’ Professor Kidd said.
‘So his legacy lives on, and his legacy will live on for many, many years.’
Professor Carson is survived by his four children.
Written by: Anastasia Tsirtsakis
The tribute to Prof Neil Edwin Carson AO (date of birth 15.10 1927 - death 10.6.2020) was originally published in newsGP 22 June 2020.