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March 2007 Issue
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Professor Robert John Barrett

MBBS, PhD, Dip Psychother, FRANZCP
Professor of Psychiatry
Born: 8 May 1949, Adelaide
Died: 12 January 2007, Adelaide


Rob Barrett was an outstanding scholar and clinician, a gifted teacher and a wise mentor, who made a substantial contribution to the disciplines of medical anthropology, psychiatry and medical education.

His unique training as both a clinical psychiatrist and as a social anthropologist allowed him to blend medical and anthropological observations in a way that reviewers of his writings have described as masterful. It is rare for a scholar to be able to straddle two quite different ways of approaching knowledge and Rob did so with aplomb.

Rob went to school at King's College in Adelaide (which later became Pembroke School) and was admitted to the Medicine program at the University of Adelaide in 1967. He was awarded his MBBS in 1973 with a number of distinctions and student prizes.

Following graduation in 1973, he served as an intern at the Royal Adelaide Hospital (RAH) and then had a brief foray into general practice before being admitted to the training program in psychiatry at the RAH. There he served as a junior registrar between 1976 and 1979.

Rob obtained his membership of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP) in 1979 and was awarded the Maddison Medallion for topping this examination nationally. His FRANZCP was conferred in 1983, the same year he completed his Diploma in Psychotherapy.

Visiting Consultant appointments to a number of hospitals followed, as did the very prestigious Neil Hamilton Fairley Fellowship awarded by the National Health and Medical Research Council, enabling Rob to spend time at the Harvard Medical School in Boston. In 1988 he was awarded his PhD by the University of Adelaide.

Rob was appointed Senior Lecturer in the University Department of Psychiatry and a Consultant Specialist to the RAH in 1990, and was also made the Director of the Eastern Community Mental Health Services. In 1998 he was appointed Professor of Psychiatry at the RAH.

Rob's written work crossed a number of different areas, but he was probably best known for two major ethnographic studies in the area of schizophrenia, one conducted in a psychiatric hospital here in Adelaide, the other in Borneo with the Iban people. His research involved pursuing the most basic theoretical concepts in anthropology back to their historical origins, and applying these theories in new ways to clinical psychiatry.

He had, in recent years, commenced an ambitious new project that attempted to marry the disciplines of social anthropology and genetics, to try to understand the heritability of schizophrenia.

Rob drew upon his research in the delivery of his teaching to medical students and trainee psychiatrists. He also taught, as an invited lecturer, to anthropology and psychology students. His teaching was mesmerising - students were enthralled and captivated not only by his novel material, but by his quirky sense of humour, his dynamic delivery and his passion for his disciplines of medicine, psychiatry and anthropology. His students' world views were often permanently changed by his teaching.

His personal gifts were a boon to his research. The tremendous listening, observation and communication skills Rob possessed were invaluable to both his psychiatric practice and his anthropological research. His formidable intellect, however, did not prevent him being a very skilled and caring medical manager of his psychiatric patients.

He contributed greatly to the work of the Mental Illness Fellowship (formerly the Schizophrenia Fellowship), Amnesty International and Nunkuwarrin Yunti.

Rob is survived by his wife Mitra and daughter Githie, and will be greatly missed by his family, his many friends, his colleagues and his patients.

Contributed by Derek Frewin
and Anna Chur-Hansen

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Professor Robert Barrett

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