Charles Bridges-Webb AO 1934 - 2010

Charles Bridges-Webb

For some very bright students, there comes a moment in their studies when they experience a moment of inspiration that sets their course in life. Such was the case for Charles Bridges-Webb during a lecture on infectious hepatitis in his fourth year as a medical student at Melbourne University.

The lecturer, Sydney Rubbo, referred to a book, Epidemiology in Country Practice, written by an English general practitioner, William Pickles, who had traced epidemics of infectious diseases through isolated villages in Yorkshire in the 1930s.

His interest sparked, Bridges-Webb asked Rubbo where he could get a copy. Rubbo lent him his copy and told him to bring it back in a couple of weeks and tell him what he thought of it.

''I was captivated by the book, and more or less there and then decided that as well as becoming a general practitioner, I wanted to do epidemiological research,'' Bridges-Webb said years later.

In 1960, Bridges-Webb did go into general practice, in Traralgon in Gippsland, Victoria. But he had already written a research paper, Shock in Myocardial Infarction, published in the Royal Melbourne Hospital clinical reports in 1959. And he was soon involved in research projects with the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP).

In 1975 he became the Foundation Professor of Community Medicine at Sydney University, a position he was to hold for 19 years, during which he did copious research, including working with the World Health Organisation to classify patients' complaints in primary healthcare.

Charles Bridges-Webb was born on October 15, 1934, the son of a Victorian country doctor, Arthur Lionel Bridges-Webb, and Helen (nee Minchin).

His grandfather, Arthur, was also a doctor. Bridges-Webb spent his early years in Castlemaine, Victoria, where his father practised. Then he attended Scotch College in Melbourne. For his medical studies, he entered Ormonde College at Melbourne University. Graduating in 1957, Bridges-Webb did a year's residency at the Royal Melbourne Hospital and travelled overseas. In 1960, he married Anne Margetts, a laboratory assistant.

They settled in Traralgon and Bridges-Webb immediately looked further afield. In 1961, he participated in the RACGP's first Australian morbidity survey - how people became ill and what were the predominant illnesses. In 1963, he presented to the RACGP results of a study into epidemiology of acute respiratory infections.

Bridges-Webb played in the local cricket competition and took an interest in the local Presbyterian Church, where he was a lay preacher. In 1967, he was awarded the Faulding Prize for Research in General Practice. In 1969, he became a member of the RACGP's co-ordinating committee for another morbidity survey. In 1971, he became principal investigator for the Traralgon Health and Illness Survey, funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council.

Monash University awarded Bridges-Webb a doctorate in medicine. In 1972, he joined the World Organisation of Family Doctors and continued to be absorbed in research work, including editing a huge RACGP national survey on general practice and prescribing.

It would have been difficult for a man with such an interest in the broader field of medicine to be restricted to a country practice and he was offered the professorship in community medicine at Sydney University. In 1975, he moved to Sydney with his family and lived in Burwood on a huge block where he planted a flourishing garden. There he relaxed, working two hours in the morning, saying he could think as he dug the spade into the earth.

Bridges-Webb's research, writing and teaching took in a range of medical subjects including acute respiratory infections, middle ear infections, childhood immunisation, asthma, and prescription of the drug benzodiazepine. His special research interests were classification systems for general practice, dementia and preventive medicine. He wrote and taught the history and philosophy of medicine. He was also interested in the development of quality assurance programs for GPs, evaluation of quality of care, measurement of clinical patient outcomes, and evidence-based medicine.

In 1981, Bridges-Webb joined a World Health Organisation working party to develop a system of classification of patients for primary care. He refereed soccer in the local churches competition and was a lay preacher at the Burwood Uniting Church.

In 1982, he represented the RACGP on the National Health and Medical Research Council, a position he held until 1984. In 1991, he became the chairman of the World Organisation of Family Doctors' International Classifications Committee. He was honoured in 1993 with an RACGP Rose-Hunt Medal for service to general practice.

In 1994, when it was proposed that the Sydney University course in community medicine become a postgraduate rather than undergraduate course, he retired early, not wanting to stay while the transition took place.

He continued his research, becoming a part-time director of the RACGP NSW Projects, Research and Development Unit. He also wrote his autobiography, To Travel Hopefully, described by a critic as ''an account of a personal and professional life of a quiet, perceptive GP and academic''.

In 2002, Bridges-Webb was awarded a medal of the Order of Australia for Service to Medicine in Primary Health Care Research. In 2004, the RACGP made him a Life Fellow. Charles Bridges-Webb is survived by Anne, his children Andrew, Ian, David and Catherine, and eight grandchildren.

Malcolm Brown
By permission of the Sydney Morning Herald