Roger Vanderfield AO OBE(C) 1928-2008

Roger Vanderfield at Royal North Shore Hospital

Roger Vanderfield was a man for many, if not all, seasons. He was a student of English history, a keen photographer, an avid philatelist, a doctor and hospital administrator, and a rugby referee and official. The last two - hospitals and rugby - were his vocations.

He was a medical superintendent of Royal North Shore Hospital for 27 years and he refereed 1260 rugby matches, including 14 Tests and 18 other international matches. His greatest achievement in the sport, however, was his work in establishing the world cup competition.

Ian Roger Vanderfield, who has died at 80, was the youngest of four boys and a girl born to Richard and Ruby Vanderfield, who lived in Enfield. Richard was of the Vanderfield and Reid timber merchants. Ruby died after a road crash, when Roger was nine. He attended Croydon preparatory school and Grammar before beginning a course in medicine at Sydney University when only 16. He graduated in 1952.

Two years later, he married Margaret Cotter, a dental nurse. The Royal North Shore annals of 1957 said of Roger Vanderfield: "Loved by every resident's wife (and the possessor of a beautiful wife loved by every resident), this newcomer to the club has become one of its most enthusiastic and valuable members."

He was deputy medical superintendent by 1958, when the annals reported: "Known variously as El Presidente, the Fuhrer, the Iron Duke, the Deputy Headmaster, that old … and so on … Constantly complains that he has to organise everything, but is secretly quite convinced that no one else could do it anyway. (He may even be right.)"

He was the general medical superintendent from 1964 to 1991, and chairman of the northern Sydney area health service. He became the hospital's archivist and helped Geoffrey Sherington write the centenary history, A Century Of Caring. He was also a mentor to medical administrators who later headed Westmead Hospital, Royal North Shore and the Royal Children's Hospital in Melbourne.

As a young man, Vanderfield played rugby for Briars and Sydney University. He began refereeing as a fifth year medical student, to maintain fitness. He was handling a third grade match at Eastwood Oval in 1949 when Arthur Irving, a long time referee, advised him to take the matter seriously.

The advice was well intended but unnecessary. Vanderfield took almost everything seriously, even when taking a drink with friends. He was serious about having his slicked-down hair in place, even on the football field. He was very serious when, as an older referee, he was dropped for a time from the referees panel for not being able to keep up with the much younger players. Many former players and officials regard him as Australia's greatest rugby referee.

Vanderfield's manner and method was as meticulous as his hair. He was reserved, proper and could be standoffish on first meeting, yet amiable and compassionate as trust grew. He loved family lunches and dinners. He died from a heart attack after attending a 50th birthday lunch for a daughter, Linda, at the Newport Arms - he had a history of heart problems, including a bypass 22 years ago and an attack six weeks ago.

At Royal North Shore he was a good communicator with administrative guile who gave everyone a sense of belonging. As the underfunding and poor management at the hospital became clear this year, Professor James Isbister wrote to the Herald: "Australia's internationally famous rugby referee Roger Vanderfield used to be the medical superintendent of Royal North Shore. Perhaps he should return as a consultant to remind politicians and bureaucrats they should stay off the field of play and support the players."

Vanderfield became president of the Australian Rugby Union and chairman of the International Rugby Board. He opposed professionalism in the game for as long as opposition was possible, and opposed sporting sanctions against South Africa.

Nick (now Sir Nicholas) Shehadie led the fight in Australia for a world cup, linking with the New Zealanders. However, the "home unions" - England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales - felt they owned the game and opposed the move. Vanderfield flew to South Africa at his own expense and persuaded their union not to vote against the Anzac plan at the board's 1985 meeting in Paris, when Vanderfield was chairman. The South Africans abstained, the French came on board and the English and Welsh delegations were split. The plan went through 8-6 and New Zealand won the first cup in 1987.

His eldest child, Ian, was a hemophiliac who died in 2000. Roger had been president of the Haemophilia Society NSW and medical secretary of the World Federation of Hemophilia. His most recent post was chairman of the Rehabilitation and Disability Research Foundation.

Vanderfield was made an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in 2006 for his services to health care through Royal North Shore, where a building is named in his honour, and to rugby. He was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1976.

Roger Vanderfield is survived by his wife, Margaret, daughters Penelope and Linda, son Michael and nine grandchildren. His funeral will be held at 12.30pm tomorrow at Macquarie Park Crematorium.

Tony Stephens
By permission of the Sydney Morning Herald