Clair Isbister CBE OBE 1915 - 2008

Clair Isbister with her fellow medical students in 1938

Clair Isbister wrote to the then prime minister John Howard two years ago offering 10 reasons why he would lose the next election. After Kevin Rudd led Labor to power, she congratulated him, pointing out that his education would have helped - they had attended the same school at Eumundi in Queensland.

The Prime Minister asked her to join the 2020 Summit in April. Isbister declined because of her age, 92, but sent a submission on early childhood development. She was the nation's best-known pediatrician in her day, proxy mother to thousands of Australians, the first neo-natal pediatrician in NSW, who established the first comprehensive preparation for parenthood classes, and was a crusader for marriage. She also carried out groundbreaking research in hospital infections and infection control.

Isbister remained involved in health issues until the last, often from a conservative viewpoint. Just before her death, she wrote to the Journal of the Australian Medical Association about the control of infection.

In 1973, in the debate over abortion with Germaine Greer and others, she had said: "Many women liberationists, hormonally castrated, demanding the right to kill the inconvenient unborn child, refusing to breastfeed and demanding child-minding facilities for their children from birth, so reject the loving, nurturing role that they are greatly damaging the causes of women's rights, degrading the female role and distorting the development of children."

Clair Isbister's grandfather, Joseph Beet, came to Australia from Devon in 1882 as a schoolteacher, with Clair's mother, Hannah, then three years old. He taught at Copperfield, near Claremont in central Queensland, then in Townsville, where Hannah excelled and was one of the first girls to be admitted to Townsville Boys Grammar. She hoped to be a doctor but became a nurse.

Clair's father, Peter Sinclair Paton, was a Scottish master builder who worked on Flinders Street railway station in Melbourne and Brisbane City Hall. Admitted to hospital with appendicitis, he met Hannah.

Clair, the eldest of three children, was christened Jean Sinclair Paton, but she preferred the abbreviation of Sinclair.

Her father built a house at Doonan, near Eumundi; Clair had her early education at the school, also built by him.

He then bought a dairy farm, which Clair grew to love, together with the the bush, gardening, reading and entertaining herself. The family later moved to a banana farm, then to Sydney for the children's education.

Clair attended St George Girls High, where she was dux, and won scholarships to Sydney University, where she joined the Student Christian Movement and the League of Nations Union and met another medical student, James Isbister. "Our relationship progressed rapidly and we began to feel the stresses of close physical contact and desire and the need for self-control," she wrote.

They graduated together in 1938 and went to Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. Resident doctors were not allowed to marry, so she transferred to the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children in Camperdown. He enlisted in the RAAF and they married at Scots Church, Sydney, in 1940. When Jim Isbister was posted to flying school, Clair joined him in Tamworth, working in general practice and doing a postgraduate course under Lorimer Dodds, professor of pediatrics at Sydney University. She went to England with her husband and young family after the war for further qualifications.

Even as a mother of four, Isbister worked at Royal Alexandra and for Tresillian family care. She gave weekly talks on ABC Radio, speaking on many medical topics, but mostly on childbirth, child care and breastfeeding. Her father-in-law, also James, had been the first Australian medical graduate at Royal North Shore, in 1900, and was Mary McKillop's doctor.

In 1948 Isbister became consultant pediatrician at Royal North Shore, and then at the Blue Mountains Hospital. She stayed at Royal North Shore until retiring in 1980.

Her study on infections determined that newborns were contracting infections from the hospital rather than their mothers. It led to significant changes in practice at maternity hospitals.

Isbister's studies of lactating mothers resulted in changes in management and instruction in breastfeeding to novice mothers. She was responsible for the implementation of pre-delivery rooms for women in labour and their partners. Royal North Shore was the first Australian hospital to establish daytime visiting rights for parents of sick children and provide play facilities in children's wards. She also became an authority on allergies and asthma in children.

She achieved public prominence through TV, radio and many books, including I'm Sick - When to Call the Doctor and Breast Feeding for Modern Mothers. She opposed premarital sex, defacto relationships, infidelity, abortion on demand, and funding for such films as Alvin Purple and Eskimo Nell, which she described as soft porn.

Clair Isbister was made OBE in 1969 for services to mothers and babies, and CBE in 1976 for services to medicine. She is survived by sons Peter, James and John, 12 grandchildren, 12 great-grandchildren and her sister, Jo Quinn.

Tony Stephens
By permission of the Sydney Morning Herald