The Isbister family – serving the RNSH community for more than a century – Jan 21, 2015

Prof James Isbister

Prof James Isbister

Prof James Isbister AM’s century-long, familial tie to Royal North Shore Hospital (RNSH) is the stuff of legends.

In 1900, his grandfather, also Dr James Isbister, a medical graduate from Adelaide University, became Australia’s first graduate to be appointed to RNSH.

Working in general surgery and specialising in gynaecology and obstetrics, Dr Isbister treated a range of patients in the early 20th century, including the renowned Australian Nun, Saint Mary Mackillop, towards the end of her life. Today the Mary Mackillop Museum displays a medical report and letters exchanged between the two.

Dr Isbister also gained notoriety for being one of North Sydney’s first citizens to own a motor car!

Following in his grandfather’s footsteps, Dr Isbister’s father (also James) – a graduate from Sydney University who served as a medical officer in the airforce during World War II – returned to RNSH in 1948, after completing his post-graduate studies in London. He returned with his beautiful wife, Clair Isbister, a consultant Paediatrician, who too worked at RNSH for more than 30 years, until her retirement in 1980.

Another remarkable medico, Dr Clair Isbister, pioneered one of Australia’s first newborn care units and established what is considered the country’s first infection control committee. In fact, her work in hospital cross infection became a model for infection control in Australia that led to the first NHMRC Infection Control Guidelines.

During the 1950s-to-60s, Dr Isbister graced the lounge rooms of many Australian families in her work with the ABC on the long-running women’s hour, as a ‘the Woman Doctor of the Air.’

In 1969 she was awarded an OBE for her services to medicine and a CBE in 1976. In 2011 she was honoured with a Canberra street in her name – Isbister Street – for her immense contributions to medicine and children’s health and welfare.

Dr James Isbister AM trained in medicine at the University of New South Wales, undertaking post-graduate work at St Vincent’s Hospital and in London, before being ‘coerced’ from his consultant appointment at St Vincent’s Hospital into relocating to RNSH in 1980.

“I had been approached about joining RNSH a few times. I finally made the move when my father retired!” Dr Isbister said.

Specialising in haematology – one of the last clinical specialities to be accepted as a specialised form of medicine at RNSH – Dr Isbister assumed the role of Head of the RNSH Haematology Department in 1982.

During his tenure as Departmental Head, Dr Isbister and his team invested significant time into developing an Integrative Clinical and Laboratory Haematology Service.

In 1997, following 15 years of service in the role, Dr Isbister stood down as Head of Department to take up the Head of Transfusion Medicine at RNSH.

“I stayed at the [RNSH] hospital until 2003, when I was appointed an Emeritus Consultant Physician.

“I subsequently did a lot of teaching for about a decade and have also been involved in research,” said Dr Isbister.

“I’ve since maintained my link with the Clinical School of Teaching and continue to do some teaching and research at RNSH.”

In 2014, Dr Isbister was honoured with Membership of the Order of Australia for his outstanding contribution to haematology and transfusion medicine and to professional organisations.

Nowadays, RNSH – which reportedly “endured a long and challenging history before evolving into a major teaching and research hospital” – continues to remain very close to Dr Isbister’s heart.

“I remember RNSH was referred to as the ‘Old school tie’ hospital because it was situated on Sydney’s North Shore and was built before the Harbour Bridge.

“Fortunately, Wallace Freeborn, the superintendent at the time, who attracted both of my parents to RNSH, was passionate about developing it into a major university teaching hospital.”

On the topic of the recent NSW Government’s proposed land divestment of this major teaching hospital,  Dr Isbister explains all hospitals have a passionate heart at their core and he strongly supports the majority of RNSH staff’s opposition to the permanent sale or long-term lease of this “extremely valuable hospital land that belongs to the community.”

“RNSH has always been a community-based hospital.”

“If you try to attack it, you attack the community,” Dr Isbister said.

“If you want to rip the hospital’s heart out, you’ll rip the community out with it.

“I am always suspicious of, and worried about anything that’s primarily driven by economics,” said Dr Isbister.

“Our role, the hospital’s role, is to make sick people better, and to keep well people well.

“If we don’t put patients or the community first, we’ll end up locked into an economic agenda,” Dr Isbister said.

“At the end of the day, we must focus on why we exist in the first place.”

Although not a Roman Catholic, Dr Isbister says he’s certain many people within the North Shore Community are currently praying to Saint Mary Mackillop to save his beloved hospital.

“We used to criticise Roger Vanderfield for running the hospital a bit like a rugby referee, but this is what is needed.

“We now have bureaucrats running on to the field and a Government ripping out the hospital’s core,” said Dr Isbister.

Julia, Clair and James in 2008

Julia, Clair and James in 2008

Dr Isbister currently serves as Chair of the Human Research Ethics Committee for South-Eastern Sydney at his Alma Mater university hospitals for the University of NSW at Prince of Wales Hospital He is a Clinical Professor of Medicine at the Northern Clinical School and the Faculty of Medicine at RNSH, and has conjoint professorial appointments at three other universities, UNSW, UTS and Monash University.

The Isbister family maintain strong ties with RNSH, most recently with Dr Isbister’s niece, Julia Isbister, who became a medical student at the Northern Clinical School at RNSH in 2008, graduating in 2012.


How will you show your support to #helpsaveRNSH? – Jan 21, 2015

Emergency Physician at RNSH, Dr Justin Bowra, has lent his support to #helpsaveRNSH by growing a beard to vent his opposition to the hospital’s land divestment.

Watch this short video below during which he asks how you will show your support to #helpsaveRNSH.

Justin video for Web

Our politicians need to Explain …



It’s time to make an appointment to meet with our local politicians and ask them to PLEASE EXPLAIN what’s happening. Why are they planning to divest one of NSW Health’s most accessible pieces of real estate, to generate a sum of money that would only run a major referral centre like RNS for a few months? They are proposing to sell land within 50 meters of rail infrastructure, that is easily accessible to patients from across NSW. RNSH is a referral centre for 1/6 of the NSW population. Once the land is sold it is lost forever …


Please continue lending your support to #helpsaveRNSH in 2015 – Jan 7, 2015

In 2015, we continue calling on all members of the RNSH community to lend their voices to #helpsaveRNSH.

The number of petition signatures to date has reached 16,409, and is still growing.

In 2015, we ask that we keep up the momentum and ensure that the land in Zone 8 of RNSH remains with the hospital for generations to come.


Please lend your support to #helpsaveRNSH by downloading & signing our petition here.

To keep up to date with all that is happening, please follow us on Facebook & Twitter, and help spread the word by liking our posts or re-posting to your friends & followers.


RNSH senior doctors pass motion of ‘no confidence’ in Local Area Health District Board regarding land divestment – Tues, Dec 23, 2014

Royal North Shore Hospital (RNSH) senior medical staff have passed a motion of no confidence in the conduct of the North Sydney Local Health District (LHD) Board regarding their handling of the recently announced plan for hospital land divestment.

In an extraordinary meeting of the Medical Staff Council (MSC) to vote on a motion of no confidence in the conduct of the LHD Board over the sale or long-term lease of the hospital’s southern campus, the motion was passed by a large majority of clinicians, late yesterday evening, Monday, December 22.

The motion was proposed by the senior medical staff who had been involved in the development of the Campus Master Plan – a document which now appears is being used by the NSW Minister of Health, Mrs Jillian Skinner MP, as the justification for the sale or long-term lease of nearly one hectare of hospital land.

Following debate on the wording of the motion, a large majority of medical staff passed a motion of no confidence on the issue of the Board’s failure to acknowledge their concerns and to represent their views in dealings with the Ministry.

Staff decided against voting on and passing a motion of no confidence on the overall conduct of the Board following a meeting between senior clinicians and Board representatives at the eleventh hour where there was acknowledgement by the Board that the issue of land divestment had been poorly handled. There was also strong undertaking by Board representatives to work with clinicians to improve communication and engagement.

According to Dr Adam Rehak, Chair, RNSH Medical Staff Council and Anaesthetist, Sydney, the vote was very much about getting the Board to hear staff concerns rather than to destabilise or undermine its members.

“It’s a shame that it came to a motion of no confidence but the upshot is the Board and medical staff are now at the table and talking.

“We see the Board as advocates for the hospital and the Local Health District and when an overwhelming majority of senior medical staff feel there is a risk to the hospital, we expect the Board to represent us accordingly,” Dr Rehak said.

RNSH clinicians believe the Campus Master Plan does not include the necessary long-term projections and analysis for land divestment and are concerned divestment could have disastrous consequences for the future of the Hospital.

Dr Tony Joseph, MSC Member and Senior Emergency Physician & Director of Trauma, RNSH, Sydney, echoed staff sentiments as senior medical staff continue to fight the Ministry of Health’s decision to sell the southern campus.

“It’s disappointing that senior RNSH medical staff have had to pursue this course of action. However, we feel that it is important to state that the MSC strongly opposed and continues to oppose, the proposed divestment.

“Senior clinicians have never supported the sale or long-term lease of the RNSH campus,” said Dr Joseph.

“While the divestment decision ultimately rests with the Health Minister, the Board is responsible for supporting decisions made which we do not believe are in the best interests of RNSH,” Dr Joseph said.

Despite the clinicians’ pleas to the NSW Premier, Mr Mike Baird MP and Mrs Skinner to cease the planned divestment, the NSW Government remains unmoveable, with plans to recoup $97 million from the land sale. This action is further compounded by claims by NSW Treasurer, Mr Andrew Constance MP, that land divestment at RNSH was decided years ago.

Should the RNSH campus land be sold, the Department of Health has guaranteed themselves tenancy of the new multi- storey office building, providing ongoing revenue to the successful developer.

RNSH staff have been calling on the Government to preserve the land for future use, solely for the benefit of the hospital, its patients, visitors and the local community.

“The NSW Government seems to be willing to compromise the long-term future of the hospital in order to get a couple of omitted services paid for in the short-term. This is short-sighted and irresponsible behaviour,” said Dr Rehak.

“The LHD Board and the Government need to understand that the MSC and the electorate know this is the wrong decision and just as the motion of no confidence on this issue was passed by RNSH medical staff, we trust the electorate too will express their opinion in the ballot box next March.”

RNSH is a major referral hospital for trauma, spinal injuries and burns across NSW and currently serves 1-in-17 Australians and 1-in-6 people from NSW. The hospital, founded in 1885 by the people, for the people, currently employs 5,000 staff within the medical, surgical, nursing, research, allied health and support service departments. Since establishment, the role of the hospital and the patients for whom it cares, has dramatically changed. Furthermore, the rapidly growing population is resulting in a year-on-year increase in emergency department presentations and hospital admissions (10 per cent and 5 per cent per annum, respectively).

To help save RNSH, or to learn more, head to