Bridges-Webb, Charles

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MM ad eundem gradum 2001 MB BS (Melb), MD (Monash), FRACGP

Charles Bridges-Webb became the foundation Chair of Community Medicine (later renamed Family Medicine, then General Practice) in 1975.

Charles grew up in the Victorian countryside, the son of a country doctor. He studied medicine at Melbourne University, graduating in 1957 and completing his internship at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. He then entered into country general practice. He says of this:

I wanted to go into country general practice because I wanted to live in the country. Both my father and grandfather had been country general practitioners, and I spent the first six years of my life in a country town. Then while I grew up in Melbourne, I spent most holidays at the farm where my other wonderful grandfather, my mother’s father, lived, and learnt to love it; bush walks, digging potatoes, milking cows. So country life was in my blood.

From 1960, he spent 15 years as a country general practitioner in Traralgon, in Gippsland. From the beginning he engaged in general practice research, “keeping a morbidity index of all my patients (i.e. a listing of patients under the diseases or conditions they had)”. He was involved in piloting the first Australian national morbidity survey of 1961, and continued his own practice research For this pioneering research, he won the Faulding Prize for Research in General Practice in 1967.

He remained in general practice until 1975, when he was appointed to the Foundation Chair of Community Medicine at the University of Sydney. He says of this time:

Prior to 1975, there had been no formal general practice teaching in any medical course in Australia. Many of the medical schools did include optional vacation placements in general practice, and such teaching went back to the 1950s – I had done one myself. However, universities were not convinced that general practice was an intellectual discipline in its own right, and this attitude was reflected in the recommendations of the 1973 Karmel Report. All 10 medical schools were funded to establish departments of Community Medicine or equivalent – some applied somewhat different terminology to the name… I applied for Melbourne and Monash, my alma maters, and Hobart and Newcastle because they were small cities. But I was going to miss the generosity of a country community, the garden, the space and such things as having fresh milk from a friend’s cow while she had agistment in our back paddock. I went to Hobart for two days… In the course of the meetings I met Charles Kerr, Professor of Public Health from the University of Sydney, who was an external assessor for the Tasmanian job. He must have been favourably impressed with me, because as a result of his recommendation I was later approached about applying for Sydney… I had made certain that though it was a Chair of Community Medicine, its focus would be general practice.[1]

He began academic work editing the report of the 1969–1970 RACGP national general practice morbidity and prescribing survey. This reinforced his “interest in surveys and classifications” as well as facilitating the development of international links that were fostered over the next 20 years. His research interests have included acute respiratory infections, otitis media, childhood immunisation, asthma, benzodiazepine prescribing and functional status as an outcome measure in general practice. Charles also wrote and taught on the history of the philosophy of medicine. In 1972, Charles had become a Foundation Member of the World Organisation of Family Doctors’ (WONCA) Classification Committee and was Chairman from 1991 to 1999. Of his work for the Committee Michael Kidd says:

[Charles] was actively involved in the development of the international Classification of Primary Care and led the development of the second revision of this internationally accepted classification system… This is a clinical coding system now used in many countries to code and classify the health problems being seen and treated in primary care. The creation of this code has proven to be an immense benefit to clinicians, health planners and communities around the world.[1]

He was principal investigator for the 1991 morbidity survey which led to the ongoing BEACH (Bettering the Evaluation and Care of Health) general practice survey. He was Honorary Secretary of Research Committee of Council, RACGP for 20 years and represented RACGP on the National Health and Medical Research Council for three years.

Shortly after his retirement in 1994, Charles was awarded an Emeritus Professorship by the University of Sydney in honour of his many years of distinguished service and in 2001, awarded an honorary Master’s of Medicine. In 2002, Charles was made an Officer of the Order of Australia for his services to medicine in primary health care research and general practice. He was made a Life Fellow of RACGP for service to general practice and a Fellow of WONCA in 2004, and a year later became an Honorary Member of the Australian Association for Academic General Practice. In 2006 his autobiography, To Travel Hopefully, was published by Sid Harta Publishers.

Citation: Mellor, Lise (2008) Bridges-Webb, Charles. Faculty of Medicine Online Museum and Archive, University of Sydney.

An alternate version appears in: Mellor, L. 150 Years, 150 Firsts: The People of the Faculty of Medicine (2006) Sydney, Sydney University Press.