Pre-eminent career strikes the right chord
Posted on Friday, July 10, 2020
By Michelle Read
Dr. Hugh Robertson began his medical career in a town that had suffered great tragedy, but that ultimately would shape his lifelong approach to medicine.
In the 1920s, Dr. Robertson’s father was practising medicine in the northern town of Cochrane, Ontario, when it became the site of Canada’s first and largest typhoid fever epidemic.
Inspired by accounts of the town’s resilience to the disaster, Dr. Robertson decided to continue his father’s legacy of providing the best possible medical care to the townsfolk. In 1961, he arrived in Cochrane to begin practice as a physician.
Over his career, the University of Ottawa Faculty of Medicine alumnus would build renown as an expert in diagnostic radiology. As he navigated the developing radiology equipment and techniques, he shared his wisdom and successes with medical colleagues around the world—and even the occasional tune along the way.
Answering unusual questions
Once in Cochrane, the new graduate was met with all kinds of unique health issues posed by remote areas.
“The closest specialist was 70 miles away in Timmins," Dr. Robertson says. "We sometimes saw very rare diseases, but the seven family physicians provided consistently high-standard, fine medical care.”
“I consider that time the most fascinating of my career,” he continues. “I realized the importance of learning as much as I could to deliver the best possible care to my patients.”
Sharing wisdom and music for good
Dr. Robertson ultimately specialized in diagnostic radiology, where he soon made a name for himself. Between 1982 and 1993, he participated in two phase-3 studies for Food and Drug Administration approval of non-ionic iodinated contrast media, with the second reducing the cost per dose to a fifth of the original cost. This safer contrast medium is now in daily use in hospitals around the world.
Dr. Robertson has lectured around the globe and has been a visiting professor in 12 countries. He earned the designation of emeritus professor of radiology at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center due to his work on contrast media, and he is also clinical professor of radiology at Tulane University Medical Center in New Orleans.
“It’s been personally deeply rewarding to contribute some knowledge to faraway medical schools,” he says.
New Orleans inspired Dr. Robertson to rekindle the musical aspirations of his youth with voice lessons from bel canto singing expert Charles Paddock. “Music has been a lifelong friend for me,” says Dr. Robertson, who has since performed in concerts around the world for 40 years and produced 16 CD recordings.
After Hurricane Katrina, Dr. Robertson worked in hospitals in Lafayette, the principal city in the Cajun area of Louisiana. “I found the Cajun people consistently hard working, warmly friendly, strongly religious and very respectful of family education, with a distinctive culture of music and cuisine,” he says.
Chivalry and charity
For over 30 years, Dr. Robertson has been a member of chivalric organizations, who dedicate themselves to charity and selfless pursuits. “I believe that if we have achieved some success, we owe it to those in need to help them do the same,” he explains.
Since their graduation, Dr. Robertson’s Class of 1959 has remained close. “Like many of my colleagues, I have a strong sense of loyalty to the University of Ottawa,” he says. “We’re like a family because we worked so closely during our formative years in medical education.”
The group met at uOttawa Homecoming in 2014 for the 55th reunion and in 2019 for the 60th. The friends even stick together in giving, with the Medical Class of 1959 Scholarship benefitting 13 students since its inception.
Dr. Robertson is keenly aware of the many expenses facing today’s medical students. “I was able to earn my tuition in a summer’s work, but that time is no longer available to students,” he explains.
To encourage others in the field, as a neuroradiologist Dr. Robertson has a special affinity for brain and mind research. He also emphasizes the need for education in support of Indigenous people.
“I am from a medical family; with my father Dr. Hugh E. Robertson a specialist in tuberculosis, working frequently in the Arctic with the Inuit people, and my mother a nurse, I feel a strong responsibility to contribute to the scholarship,” he says.
Dr. Robertson earned Masters’ degrees in Public Health and Tropical Medicine in 2017. He stresses the need to inform the news media of the importance of an effective, safe COVID-19 vaccine, which is an absolute necessity in controlling the pandemic virus.
“The public must realize it is counter-productive to reject vaccines on the basis of false information,” he says. “Until then, extreme precaution by way of masks and distancing will help protect us.”
Main photo: Dr. Hugh Robertson at the Shaw Centre in Ottawa, Ontario as part of Homecoming 2019, the 60th anniversary of the Class of 1959
Update August 23, 2021: Dr. Hugh Robertson passed away on June 1, 2021. View his obituary here.