Remembering 'Tropical Bob' 1926-2017
6 Jan 2017
It is with much sadness that we farewell a very dear friend, an iconic Churchill Fellow, Queenslander and Australian.
Robert (Bob) Prickett captured the essence of what it really means to be a Churchill Fellow and what the Churchill Trust is all about. He was an inspiration to many people, making an extraordinary impact on everyone who crossed his path and those who have had the privilege and honour of being a Bob and June Prickett Churchill Fellow.
Bob's impact on the Churchill Trust and the lives of ordinary Australians has been profound and it will be everlasting.
Bob who came to be known as ‘Dusty Bob’ and then as ‘Tropical Bob’, made maximum use of his 1967 Churchill Fellowship opportunity. He enriched the Australian community and for twenty years inspired others to do the same through his (and his late wife June’s) sponsorship of Churchill Fellows in the field of health.
Bob Prickett’s Churchill Fellowship enabled him to study at the University of California’s School of Public Health and Sanitary Engineering. It was here and at conferences and meetings that he gained access to some of the world’s experts in water-borne disease prevention, as well as many other public health aspects of water and waste water. Just a few years later, Bob would put these ideas into action when Cyclone Tracy, a Category 4 Severe Tropical Cyclone, devastated Darwin, causing a great loss of lives and the destruction of 80 per cent of homes.
A brief look at Bob’s background tells us that in 1912 Bob’s father, a carpenter and joiner, had emigrated from England to New Zealand, where Bob and his brother were born. His father fought in the First World War. Bob was born in 1926. He recalls spending much time outdoors during his childhood and he loved ‘messing about on boats’, however he also recalls the hardship of the Depression, such as eating bread and dripping.
Bob qualified as a Civil Engineer and went on to have a varied career, always passionate about his work. In New Zealand he spent some time in soil conservation and river control work. He met June and after they married they travelled to England, where Bob worked for the Navy in the dockyards for two years.
When he and June left to return to New Zealand, they decided to stop off in Australia. As Bob relates to Lesley Jenkins for the Oral History project of interviews with key Churchill Trust figures, ‘I looked around for jobs either in New Zealand or Australia and the one up in Darwin came up first, so I went stream gauging in Darwin for a few months and then a job came up in water supply engineering and I took that on – for twenty-seven years’.
It was 1956 when they arrived there. At the time, Darwin’s population was about 10,000. Bob recalls ‘…you knew everybody. It was great walking down the street on a Friday night and meeting your friends. It was a very sociable place at that time'.
Bob worked hard, routinely doing twelve-hour days, but he enjoyed it, contributing to the building of the Northern Territory water supply and sewerage systems, the roads and the schools. He made efforts to establish stringent standards of construction in the water and sewerage works in Darwin.
Towards the end of 1974 the people of Darwin had been warned of a cyclone building up but there had been other recent warnings that had come to nothing, so based on their experience, many thought that this warning would also come to nothing.
But from Christmas Eve to Christmas Day, 1974, the 240 kilometre per hour winds blasted Darwin. The Bureau of Meteorology categorised it as a Category 4 Severe Tropical Cyclone. Seventy-one people died, 80 per cent of houses were destroyed, and $837 million worth of damage was done to the city – equivalent to $4.45 billion today.
The Prickett family home was one of the few that fared well during the cyclone. Bob had put angle iron over the roof and secured it to the roof trusses that ran down to the ground. He recalls, ‘…so after Cyclone Tracy I had a roof and the neighbours didn’t, so they came and stayed with us. … We were like a lot of sardines in the living room that night’.
The entire city was without water and without electricity. Most people were rendered homeless in an instant. For the next week Bob was so busy he was able to snatch only a few hours of sleep during the whole seven days.
It was Bob’s responsibility to rehabilitate the water supply. The pump stations were without electricity so he and his team brought in generators and got the pumps going. The knowledge he had gained on his Churchill Fellowship enabled him to be of far more value to his community than would otherwise have been possible and meant that he was able to meet the enormous challenge of Cyclone Tracy with great expertise and resilience, and to inspire others with his leadership.
Bob had written in his Churchill Trust Fellowship report that the discipline of academic study in the United States combined with the stimulation of his contacts in both academic and practical environments there had broadened his interest and given him a wealth of technical knowledge. As well as helping his community with practical knowledge after Cyclone Tracy, he produced more papers on water-borne diseases and their prevention and contributed to a Senate Select Committee on the topic.
When Bob retired in 1985 he and June moved to Cairns. Bob felt strongly that the time on his Churchill Fellowship had changed him for the better both professionally and personally. He and June had made some successful real estate investments and Bob came to the conclusion that he wanted to give back to the Trust as much as he could. He and June agreed to use some of their good fortune from astute real estate deals to sponsor a Churchill Fellowship for the study of an aspect of the health of Australians.
After Bob's wife June sadly passed in 1992, Bob decided to put even more of his and June’s capital into the Trust by sponsoring a range of Fellowships relating to health and this generous gift will go on benefiting Australians in perpetuity.
The first Bob and June Prickett Churchill Fellowship was awarded in 1993 to Megan Kentish of Queensland. Her trip to the United Kingdom and the United States and Canada enabled her to investigate physiotherapy methods in those countries for children with congenital birth defects. Megan has gone on to become Program Director for the Queensland Paediatric Rehabilitation Service.
Queenslander Carmel Fleming was awarded a Bob and June Prickett Churchill Fellowship in 1998. She travelled to consult four experts in the United Kingdom and six in the United States on the prevention of eating disorders. Anorexia, for instance, is a life-threatening eating disorder, which can also result in osteoporosis and problems in reproduction. Carmel was interested in researching the most economical way of preventing both individual suffering and the wider societal cost of eating disorders and she has been contributing in this area ever since. Currently she continues this important work at Queensland Health's Eating Disorders Outreach Service. Queensland Health have been very supportive of Carmel's work in eating disorders over many years since her Fellowship, recently awarding Carmel a Queensland Health Research Scholarship to fund her PhD research into supporting families affected by eating disorders.
Dr Richard Williamson travelled to the United States on his 1999 sponsored Churchill Fellowship to investigate paediatric tumour analysis. Bob Prickett wrote in a letter to him that it was ‘very satisfactory to be associated with such a study and with such a dedicated pathologist’.
Since his Fellowship Richard’s career as a dermatopathologist has gone from strength to strength. He is also an author in the World Health Organization’s Classification of Skin Disorders and is a member of the Australian Dermatopathology Society Executive Committee.
Melbourne’s Dr George Ntoumenopoulos used his 2002 sponsored Churchill Fellowship to study physiotherapy techniques to facilitate airways in patients. He was able to visit medical and research centres in Sydney, as well as in Canada, Denmark, Germany and the United Kingdom. Such physiotherapy techniques mean reduced time in Intensive Care and reduced need for more invasive and expensive forms of intervention.
Bob Prickett was particularly passionate about improving organ donation and transplantation in Australia. Several of the Fellowships, such as Simone McMahon’s, had organ and tissue donation as their focus. Simone started the Organ Donation and Transplant Foundation of WA, after becoming the 3,000th Churchill Fellow in 2006 when awarded this sponsored Churchill Fellowship.
She visited Spain, England and the United States, and her emulation of some strategies in those countries for improving organ donor rates in Australia resulted in a significant improvement in Australia’s organ donor rates. In 2013 Simone was made a Member of the Order of Australia for her service to community health. The Bob and June Prickett Sponsored Fellowship in organ donation ran from 2006 to 2011.
A new Bob and June Prickett sponsored Churchill Fellowship began in 2011 for Prostate Cancer. Bob Prickett is a survivor of prostate cancer and was concerned that not enough research was being done on this cancer. Every day in Australia, thirty-two men are diagnosed with prostate cancer. Award-winning journalist Jill Margo was awarded the inaugural sponsored Churchill Fellowship in this area.
Jill travelled to see experts in prostate cancer post-surgery rehabilitation in England, the United States, Germany and Israel. She was grateful for the opportunity and later collaborated with the Prostate Cancer Foundation, writing a monograph on prostate cancer that gathers all the relevant information on the cancer and its treatment in one convenient place. Jill said that she will always treasure the sculpture that Dusty Bob made to give to her.
‘Dusty’ Bob – the nickname came about because he was often covered in white marble dust from making his sculptures – took an active interest in the Fellows he sponsored, from the selection process through to corresponding with them when they were travelling, and continuing the rapport afterwards. The copies of postcards and letters in Bob’s file in Churchill House are a lively testament to the mutual affection and respect – not mention the sense of humour – between Bob and his Fellows.
Queensland midwife Fiona Bogossian wrote in her report: ‘My sincere thanks to Bob, and his dear, late wife June for their generous gift … the Fellowship has not only provided me with an opportunity for personal and professional growth but has also allowed me the privilege of getting to know Bob and to be welcomed as one of Dusty Bob’s Fellows’.
Fiona’s 2006 sponsored Churchill Fellowship was to visit the United Kingdom and the United States to examine the scope of the practice, education and regulation of Doulas, trained birth companions who provide support but do not undertake clinical tasks.
Paediatrician Dr Stephen Withers was Director of Paediatrics at Logan Hospital in Queensland in 2003 when he was awarded a Bob and June Prickett Churchill Fellowship to investigate care delivery in areas of social disadvantage. He visited the United Kingdom and the United States.
He acknowledges in his report his gratitude to ‘Mr Bob “Dusty” Prickett for sponsoring this Fellowship. His kindness and generosity as a past Churchill Fellow makes him a model for us all.’ Stephen found his Fellowship informative and inspiring, and summed up the findings in his report with the uplifting goal: ‘with forethought and planning we can improve the lives of people in all communities’.
Diane Greathead also expresses gratitude for her 2013 sponsored Fellowship to improve hospital experience for children and their families, thanking ‘one of the most generous and interesting men I have had the pleasure of meeting...’
Other Bob and June Prickett sponsored Churchill Fellowships have been made available in areas Bob has felt passionate about, in genetic and metabolic disease from 2012 to 2014, and in establishing tropical food gardens in homes, schools or communities in 2015.
‘Dusty Bob’ had retired to Cairns in 1984, planning to take up woodcarving. But under his and June’s new house he discovered something that intrigued him: a big white block of Chillagoe marble.
He experimented with carving the marble, applying the engineering techniques with which he was familiar to the grinding and polishing of the marble. Rather than using a hammer and chisel, he used angle grinders and evolved his own original methods, resulting in a unique style. He wrote, ‘I had seldom drawn anything but straight lines in my engineering career so have found it fascinating to convert to curves and swerves’.
He watched goldfish and tried to emulate their graceful movement, then went on to more ambitious work, exhibiting at the Red Chair Gallery in Cairns, then started selling his work further afield nationally and internationally. The size of his work ranged from small to sometimes two metres high.
The letters and cards of sponsored Churchill Fellows who are also recipients of Bob’s sculptures make clear their delight at receiving the gift of a Bob Prickett work. However, after nearly 20 years of making his smooth, tactile, graceful sculptures, Bob gave up this heavy, demanding art and hung up his nick name with the tools, adopting the new sobriquet ‘Tropical Bob’ and signing his letters as such.
Bob Prickett survived the premature deaths of those he loved most and also his own previous diagnosis of cancer. He dealt with these blows with fortitude, resilience and generosity. He met the challenge of getting the city of Darwin back on its feet with his customary professional rigour and pragmatic solutions. In the Oral Histories Bob emphasises the key question considered when Churchill Fellows are being chosen: ‘how are you going to give back to the community, how are you going to share what you have learnt?’
Bob Prickett is a great example of giving to the community, with his application of the lessons learnt from his own Fellowship to the stricken Darwin community after the devastating Cyclone Tracy, and with his and his June’s sponsorship of over thirty-five Churchill Fellows in varied aspects of health.
His generosity will continue to benefit the community by funding Bob and June Prickett Churchill Fellows in health related fields in perpetuity.