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Original title:  L. Bruce Robertson in uniform, [ca. 1914-1918]. L. Bruce Robertson fonds, F 1374, Archives of Ontario, I0050303.

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ROBERTSON, LAWRENCE BRUCE, surgeon and army officer; b. 6 Sept. 1885 in Toronto, third son of Alexander James Robertson, a manufacturer’s agent, and Julia Dalmage Carry; m. 17 April 1920 Enid Gordon Finley in Montreal, and they had a son and a daughter; d. 24 Feb. 1923 in Toronto.

Of Scottish background, Bruce Robertson was educated at the Toronto Model School, Upper Canada College, University College (ba 1907), and the faculty of medicine of the University of Toronto (mb 1909). After interning in surgery at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, of which his uncle John Ross Robertson* was board chairman, he trained for a year and a half in paediatric and orthopaedic surgery at Bellevue Hospital in New York City, and then spent six months as house surgeon at the Children’s Hospital in Boston. In 1913 he returned to Toronto as an assistant in both clinical surgery and pathology at Sick Children’s as well as a demonstrator in clinical surgery at the university. That year, drawing upon his clinical experience in the United States, he published his first paper, in the American Medical Association’s Journal (Chicago). Others followed in Canadian and American publications, including an important article in 1915 on blood transfusion in children, written with his hospital colleague Dr Alan Brown*. Here they described the benefits of the new, indirect method of transfusion, by means of syringes and cannulae, that Robertson was using at Sick Children’s. (He was also cognizant of the method of transferring blood stored in a cylinder containing an anticoagulant.)

Following the outbreak of World War I, Robertson had enlisted in November 1914 in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, was commissioned a lieutenant, and was posted to the hospital at the training camp on the Toronto exhibition grounds. Located in cow stables, it serviced several dozen patients a day, most of whom had minor illnesses or injuries, but by February 1915 more serious problems were being treated, including cases of pneumonia and meningitis. At the time the Canadian Army Medical Corps’s No.2 Casualty Clearing Station was being organized with area officers and medical students from the university. Robertson enrolled for overseas service and embarked from Halifax with the unit on 18 April.

Indirect blood transfusion, which he had learned in New York and applied in Toronto, helped save thousands of patients in military hospitals at the front. Robertson was the pioneer who introduced the technique to the British army’s medical personnel, and through former colleagues also on military service, to other Canadian hospitals overseas. He first used it in the fall of 1915, while posted to No.14 Canadian General Hospital, on soldiers who had received severe shrapnel wounds. The results were published in the British Medical Journal (London) some months later. His work in 1916 and 1917, most of it with his original unit, No.2 CCS, was reported in other papers. One, in 1917, included an appreciative note by the consulting surgeon to the British Expeditionary Force, Colonel Charles Gordon Watson, who, confident that the methods of transfusion would improve even more “under the stimulus of war,” urged “other surgeons to increased activity in the practice of this life-saving device.” Robertson’s major paper, “A contribution on blood transfusion in war surgery,” was published in Lancet (London) in June 1918.

For Robertson transfusion was a means to an end, both to reduce the impact of shock on terribly wounded soldiers, so that he could proceed with the operations that might save their lives, and to facilitate their recovery. He took a keen interest in his patients, imploring them to write to him about their post-operative progress. Dozens did. Lieutenant B. W. A. Massey of the Royal Field Artillery, for example, told Robertson in August 1917 that “I owe most of all to your handling of my amputations and transfusion at the CCS.”

In October, because of a shortage of surgeons at the Hospital for Sick Children, President Sir Robert Alexander Falconer* of the University of Toronto requested that Robertson, now a major in the CAMC, be sent home. Following his return in February 1918, he resumed his work at Sick Children’s and the university and accepted a posting to the CAMC’s Dominion Orthopaedic Hospital in Toronto. At Sick Children’s, where he was part of a group of brilliant young surgeons which included William Edward Gallie and David Edwin Robertson, he continued his clinical research, using blood transfusion as a treatment for toxemias in children caused, in many instances, by severe burns. In addition, he followed up on two cases of heavy carbon monoxide poisoning in soldiers he had treated at the front in 1916. In 1920 Robertson married Enid Finley, who had been with the Volunteer Aid Detachment at Hart House at the university. In early February 1923 he had an attack of influenza and was hospitalized. Apparently recovered, he returned to his home and family on Foxbar Road, but on the 17th he was stricken with pneumonia. A week later, at age 37, Bruce Robertson, soldier and surgeon, died.

Robert Craig Brown

Lawrence Bruce Robertson’s many publications include one article in the American Medical Assoc., Journal (Chicago), “Gas bacillus infection – a report of six cases,” 61 (July–December 1913): 1624–26; one in the Arch. of Surgery (Chicago), “Exsanguination–transfusion: a new therapeutic measure in the treatment of severe toxemias,” 9 (1924): 1–15; one in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, “The significance of the Von Pirquet reaction in surgical tuberculosis in children,” 170 (January–[June] 1914): 550–53; two in the British Medical Journal (London), “The transfusion of whole blood: a suggestion for its more frequent employment in war surgery” and “Further observations on the results of blood transfusion in war surgery, with special reference to the results in primary haemorrhage . . . with a note by C. G. Watson . . . ,” July–December 1916: 38–40 and July–December 1917: 679–83 respectively; three in the Canadian Medical Assoc., Journal (Toronto), “Traumatic asphyxia with a report of six cases,” “Blood transfusion in infants and young children” (written with Alan Brown), and “Blood transfusion in severe burns in infants and young children: a preliminary report of the treatment of the toxic shock by blood transfusion – with or without preceding exsanguination,” 4 (1914): 501–7, 5 (1915): 298–305, and 11 (1921): 744–50 respectively; one written with Gladys Lillian Boyd* in the Journal of Laboratory and Clinical Medicine (St Louis, Mo.), “The toxemia of severe superficial burns,” 9 (1923–24): 1–14; one in the Lancet (London), “A contribution on blood surgery in war surgery,” January–June 1918: 759–62; and a collaborative article in Northwest Medicine ([Seattle, Wash.]), “Blood transfusion in children: its indications and limitations; from an analysis of 600 cases,” 20 (1921): 233–44.

AO, F 1374; RG 22-305, no.46984. LAC, RG 9, III, B2, 3751; 3752: C-3-3; RG 150, Acc. 1992–93/166, box 8363-21. UTA, A1973-0026/382(11). Gazette (Montreal), 17, 19 April 1920. H. F. Brewer et al., Blood transfusion, ed. Geoffrey Keynes (Bristol, Eng., 1949), 1–40. “Dr. Bruce Robertson,” Canadian Journal of Medicine and Surgery (Toronto), 53 (January–June 1923): 195–98. N. M. Guiou, Transfusion: a Canadian surgeon’s story in war and in peace (Yarmouth, N.S., 1985). History of the Great War based on official documents: medical services; surgery of the war, ed. Sir W. G. Macpherson et al. (London, 1922), 1: chap.5. Geoffrey Keynes, Blood transfusion (London, [1922]), chap.7. Sir Andrew Macphail, Official history of the Canadian forces in the Great War, 1914–19: the medical services (Ottawa, 1925). Nicholson, CEF. A[lexander] Primrose and E. S. Ryerson, “The direct transfusion of blood: its value in haemorrhage and shock in the treatment of the wounded in war,” British Medical Journal, July–December 1916: 384–86. [William] Rawling, “Providing the gift of life: Canadian medical practitioners and the treatment of shock on the battlefield,” Canadian Military History (Waterloo, Ont.), 10 (2001), no.1: 7–20. C. L. Starr, “Lawrence Bruce Robertson, b.a., m.b.,” Canadian Medical Assoc., Journal, 13 (1923): 216–17. “The transfusion of whole blood,” British Medical Journal, July–December 1917: 695–96. University of Toronto roll of service, 1914–1918 (Toronto, 1921). The war book of Upper Canada College, Toronto, ed. A. H. Young (Toronto, 1923).

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Cite This Article

Robert Craig Brown, “ROBERTSON, LAWRENCE BRUCE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed May 25, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/robertson_lawrence_bruce_15E.html.

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Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/robertson_lawrence_bruce_15E.html
Author of Article:   Robert Craig Brown
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   2005
Year of revision:   2005
Access Date:   May 25, 2024