Thomas Stapleton 1920 - 2007

Tom Stapleton was appointed as Professor of Child Health at the University of Sydney in 1960, a position he occupied until 1983. During that time he was Director of the Institute of Child Health until its closure in 1982 and was an Honorary Physician at the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children.

Born in England in 1920, Stapleton’s ancestry included a 14th century member of the Order of the Garter and Lieutenant James King, who travelled with Captain Cook on his third voyage.

Stapleton was educated at the King’s School, Canterbury where he was influenced by Dean Hewlett Johnson, popularly known as the “Red Dean”. He then studied medicine at Oxford, graduating in 1943, followed by service with the Royal Army Medical Corps until 1946.

After the war he worked at Boston Children's Hospital in James Gamble's laboratory. He returned to England as a Lecturer in the Paediatric Unit at Mary's Hospital, Paddington. At that time there was a near-epidemic of hypocalcaemia in infants which was found to be due to over-dosage with vitamin D for the prophylaxis of rickets. Stapleton played an important role in the elucidation of this problem. He also became strongly influenced by the physician and child psychologist, Donald Winnicott.

In his appointment at the University of Sydney and the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children he succeeded Lorimer Dods, Australia's first Professor of Child health and a much loved figure. It was a hard act to follow.

In many ways Stapleton was ahead of his time. He had strong views about the importance of the family, about listening to children and about the need to integrate psychiatry into paediatrics. When the opportunity arose to appoint an Associate Professor, he appointed, not another paediatrician, but a Child Psychiatrist, Julian Katz.

At times there were tensions with the hospital administration and some of the hospital senior staff, most likely a combination of Tom's innovative and somewhat unorthodox approach, combined with his lack of diplomacy. He was always passionate about his responsibility toward students and encouraged them to gain experience beyond the traditional confines of hospital paediatrics, such as going into the community for further experience and working in developing countries during vacation and elective time. When I succeeded him in 1985 he sent me on a brief congratulatory note which included the phrase "whatever happens, never forget the students".

He was Secretary-General of the International Paediatric Association (IPA), a role which, along with his interest in visiting China on a regular basis, took up a large amount of his time. In that role he was influential in including third world countries and also totalitarian regimes in the affairs of the IPA as he wanted membership to include all countries as part of his mission to improve child health internationally.

In 1983 he was facing increasing difficulties in Sydney and accepted a 12 month Fellowship at Cambridge, followed by retirement to his cottage in Buckinghamshire. The University of Sydney awarded him an honorary MD in 1995. In recognition of his long-standing association with China, in 2006 the Prime Minister of China presented him with the Friendship Award in the Great Hall of the People. This is China's highest award to foreigners.

In retirement he continued to travel widely and arranged Oxford research scholarships for students from around the world, often accommodating them in his own home. He established a scholarship scheme to allow this work to continue after his death.

Tom Stapleton was a man of great energy and wide interests who displayed kindness and generosity of spirit to families and children, to many professional colleagues and to his students.

Kim Oates