Obstetric pioneer and mentor began as a country GP
COLL Fisher, who died suddenly on January 9, was a humble country doctor who became one of Australia’s most respected obstetricians. He was director of Maternal-Fetal Medicine and Clinical Director of Obstetrics at Sydney’s Royal Hospital for Women, where he worked for 35 years until he retired in 2003. He was an internationally known expert in handling high-risk pregnancies, and one of a three-man team who pioneered grey-scale ultrasound techniques now used worldwide.
Fisher was also a respected clinician and teacher who delivered 3527 babies in his private practice and was involved in the delivery tens of thousands more public patients over a 40-year career..
Cuthbert Collingwood Fisher was named by his doctor father, Ernest, after Lord Nelson’s deputy at the Battle of Trafalgar — a man known for his reliability, loyalty and benevolence. Coll Fisher followed his father and older Coll Fisher MBBS (Sydney), FRACGP, DDU, FRACOG, FRCOG 1935— 2008 brother, Eric, into the family general practice in the western NSW town of West Wyalong after studying at Scots College, the University of Sydney, and completing a two-year internship at Sydney’s Royal North Shore Hospital.
But after four years as a country GP, his desire to improve his obstetric skills took him to the Royal Hospital for Women in Sydney. He planned to work there for two years and then return to West Wyalong. But, as his brother said at the funeral service: ‘‘ The Royal knew quality when they saw it, and he remained working there until he retired.’’
By 1977 Fisher had completed his specialist studies and became director of the RHW’s fetal intensive care unit.
In subsequent years he published more than 30 articles, editorials and book chapters and emerged a national authority on pre-natal diagnosis, fetal monitoring, rhesus disease, fetoscopy and high-risk obstetrics.
He was an adviser to government at both federal and state levels, and held a variety of positions in the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, and its successor, the Royal Australian College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, of which he was founding secretary.
His practice focused on high-risk pregnancies, including his pioneering work with mothers and babies with HIV, and hundreds of calls of sympathy have come from women crediting him for their successful pregnancies.
But Coll Fisher is perhaps best remembered as a mentor and teacher. Former student Daniel Challis told the funeral service that Fisher was known to his students as ‘‘ cool Coll’’ for his ability to remain unflappable in the face of life-and-death emergencies and his capacity to calmly appraise and and determine the best course of action.
Challis said Fisher also had a special skill in patiently instructing students and instilling confidence by allowing them to take the lead in treating their patients, intervening only when required.
‘‘ He was equally adept at caring for the wives of government ministers and substanceabusing sex workers with HIV and, quite remarkably, treated all his private and public patients equally,’’ Challis said.
‘‘ All the staff knew he would support them if there was an adverse outcome, as long as they had done the right thing. He taught us that we could not save every baby, and that was OK too.’’
Fisher abhorred lazy or defensive obstetrics, and railed against unnecessary use of caesarean deliveries, urging colleagues and students to let nature take its course. He was a great supporter of midwives, and often reminded his students that they did 90 per cent of the work in labour wards.
Fisher was passionate about opera and the cinema. He was also a keen sportsman who, as a young man, excelled at rugby and cricket.
He retained a keen interest in both sports in later years and was at the Sydney Cricket Ground with son Robert to watch Australia’s controversial victory over India in the days before his death from a heart attack.
Coll Fisher is survived by his wife of 46 years Gillian, three children, four grandchildren, and his brother and sister.
He leaves behind a living legacy of generations of obstetricians working around Australia and the world who trained under his steady hand. Matthew Franklin