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Robjohns, Henry Collin (1908–1990)

by Helen Jones

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Henry Collin Robjohns (1908-1990), medical practitioner and missionary, was born on 29 June 1908 at Keyneton, South Australia, third of four children of English-born Leonard Robjohns, Congregational minister and schoolteacher, and his wife Florence Julia, née Stephens, who was born in Adelaide.  As a boy, Collin loved gardening.  He attended public schools, including Unley High School, until becoming a foundation scholar in 1924 at King’s College (since 1974 Pembroke School), Kensington Park.  A school talk on missions inspired him to serve with the London Missionary Society.  Brown-eyed, of medium height, earnest and perceptive, in 1925 he entered the medical school, University of Adelaide (MB, BS, 1932); the Parkin Trust supported him in his studies from 1926.  He was founding secretary (1926) and president (1927-28) of the King’s Old Collegians’ Association.

In 1933 Robjohns worked at Perth General Hospital.  On 28 February 1934 at Stow Memorial Church, Adelaide, he married with Congregational forms Dorothy Elizabeth Haslam, a schoolteacher.  He travelled to England to study at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (Dip.T.&H., 1934).  In January 1935, under the auspices of the LMS, he and his wife sailed for Shanghai, China, then journeyed six hundred miles (966 km) by river-steamer up the Yangtze River to Wuchang, in Hubei province.  In nearby Siaokan (Xiaogan), using an interpreter, Robjohns relieved the mission’s doctor for three months, seeing cases 'such as [he] had never seen before'.  The Robjohns delighted in the surrounding countryside.  Ten months’ intensive language study followed; both passed the examination and Robjohns passed two further annual tests.  Appointed junior medical officer at the Christian Union Hospital, Hankow (Hankou), he also visited patients in their homes.  His wife taught English to mission schoolgirls.

To escape the advancing Japanese army, in January 1938 Mrs Robjohns took their baby daughter back to Australia.  In June Robjohns relieved the mission doctor at Tsaoshih (known as Soap Market Town), also in Hubei province.  Dedicated, strong, and supported by Chinese nurses, staff and water-carriers, he coped with a cholera epidemic, wounded civilians, and waves of weakened refugees fleeing bomb attacks.  Living under Japanese occupation from November, he provided refuge for townspeople and painstakingly secured basic food supplies, while Japanese army officers made free use of his house and possessions.

On a year’s leave in Australia from late December 1940, Robjohns addressed church meetings on the work of the LMS.  He and his wife shared a strong religious conviction that they should return to China despite the dangers.  They were welcomed back at Tsaoshih with celebratory crackers.  In 1942 the family, including a second daughter, was placed under house arrest and subsequently interned in Shanghai’s Ash civilian internment camp.  Dr Robjohns was camp medical officer.  Conditions were poor; Dorothy Robjohns fell ill, developed 'acute fulminating purpura' and on 30 March 1944 died.  Shattered, Robjohns maintained his faith but no longer felt that he had succeeded as a missionary.

Arriving in Australia in December 1945, Robjohns took his daughters back to Adelaide and reluctantly entered general practice at Parkside; his parents assisted him at home.  On 24 March 1948 at Stow Memorial Church he married Mabel Humphris Cashmore.  A member (1925-37) of the South Australian and national hockey teams, Mabel had toured overseas in 1930 and 1932 with all-Australia sides.  She held administrative posts in the State hockey association, wrote newspaper articles on women’s hockey, and in the 1940s and 1950s coached South Australian schoolgirl teams.  Founding vice-president (1953) of the South Australian Women’s Amateur Sports Council, she helped May Mills to develop the South Australian Women’s Memorial Playing Fields at St Marys.

Befriending Asian students, Robjohns joined the planning and inaugural committees of the Australian Asian Association of South Australia.  In 1956 he sold his medical practice, worked for a year at the Alice Ho Miu Ling Nethersole Hospital, Hong Kong, and then travelled in India with his wife.  Late in 1958 he 'recovered a sense of vocation' and 'continued his missionary role' through the Victorian Hospitals and Charities Commission’s newly introduced geriatric services.  He was appointed medical superintendent of the 600-bed Queen Elizabeth Home for the aged at Ballarat, where twenty-five per cent of patients were bedridden.  Inspiring staff and encouraging patients to 'make the struggle to mobility and independence', he initiated exercise and diversional therapy.  The number of patients confined to bed fell to five per cent.  Also, domiciliary services enabled more aged people to remain at home.

In 1963 Robjohns accepted the Adelaide Central Methodist Mission’s invitation to establish a rehabilitation centre for residents of Aldersgate, an aged-care village founded at Felixstowe in 1944 by Samuel Forsyth.  He undertook an eleven-month study tour in Denmark, United States of America, England and the Netherlands before beginning work in January 1964.  Introducing practical measures to enable residents to live as actively as possible, he employed skilled staff, including physiotherapists and occupational therapists.  In 1980 he was appointed MBE for his services to the elderly.

Robjohns retired on 18 February 1975; his wife died only hours later.  In May that year he joined a tour of China arranged by the Friends of the Art Gallery of South Australia.  Tour members appreciated his knowledge of Chinese culture.  He continued developing the garden that he and Mabel had created among tall old trees at their Marryatville home.  With a keen aesthetic and practical appreciation of plants and gardens, he was founding president (1977-79) of the Friends of the Adelaide Botanic Gardens and editor of the Friends’ Gazette for ten years; in September 1982 he accompanied a Friends’ botanical tour to China.  In 1988 he published his autobiography, My Several Lives.  Survived by the two daughters of his first marriage, he died on 20 December 1990 at his Marryatville home and was cremated after a service in the Pembroke School chapel.  The Collin Robjohns Gates at the Mount Lofty Botanic Garden, commissioned by the Friends group, were opened in September 1996.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Jaensch et al, Hat Pins to Bodysuits, 2003
  • Friends of the Botanic Gardens Gazette, vol 11, no 1, 1988, p 6
  • Friends of the Botanic Gardens Gazette, vol 20, no 1, 1997, p 9
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 22 December 1990, p 15
  • C. Hunter, Doctoring Old Age (PhD thesis, University of Melbourne, 2003)
  • private information
  • personal knowledge

Citation details

Helen Jones, 'Robjohns, Henry Collin (1908–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/robjohns-henry-collin-14461/text25553, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 24 February 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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