Doctor, soldier, writer, historian
For Dr Robert Likeman OAM CSM, there is no such thing as a lazy retirement.
In fact, one might get the impression that this highly educated over-achiever simply has no idea what the word lazy means.
A retired Army medic, Dr Likeman has reached the heights of his profession – both in the military and in medicine.
And now, he is writing books about Australian doctors who served in WWI and WWII. The Australian Doctors at War Series is proving to be a valuable record, adding greatly to the nation’s collective knowledge.
“The people who went to Gallipoli were the people who held their hands up first, and that applied to the doctors just as much as it did to the other people. In other words, the brightest and best,” Dr Likeman says.
“And I think the fascinating thing about Gallipoli from a medical point of view is that the doctors who were at Gallipoli – there were only about 270 of them – they were the ones who built Australian medicine over the next 40 years.
“You get the same thing in World War Two for the people who volunteered first and went to North Africa.”
Robert Kenneth Likeman, born in England in 1942, studied the Classics and Oriental Languages at Oxford University, before switching to Medicine and Surgery. He enlisted in the Territorial Army in the UK and served in the Middle East.
“I had always wanted to be in the Army. My grandfather was a professional soldier, my father was in the Army during the war,” he says.
“In one of those light bulb moments, I came to the conclusion that it was actually a lot more sensible to take bullets out of people rather than put them in. That sounds awfully facetious, but it was very much like that, and I finished my degree and subsequently went to medical school.
“At the time when I was finishing, I met an old school friend who had been in Adelaide doing a PhD. He was a soil chemist and he said ‘you gotta go to Australia Robert. Australia’s the place.’ So I went to Australia House with ten quid in my pocket. I’d hoped to come by boat, but they had stopped by then. I came in March 1972 and I flew.”
He joined the Army Reserve in Australia.
Newly migrated, it wasn’t long before he was living in Papua New Guinea as a Government Medical Officer, before becoming the Medical Superintendent at Te Kuiti Hospital in New Zealand.
Back in Australia, Dr Likeman, whose specialisation was in gynaecology and obstetrics, became the Acting Director of Gynaecology at the Royal Brisbane Hospital and Deputy Medical Superintendent, Royal Women’s Hospital Brisbane.
But it was in 1986 when his career took a big leap. A new women’s hospital was opened in Townsville and he became the Medical Superintendent. He was there for ten years. He had also transferred to the Royal Australian Army Medical Corps and by 1992 was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel.
“We pioneered laparoscopic hysterectomy in Townsville,” he says.
Then one day he “got a call” after the hospital had been closed, asking if he would you like to transfer to the Regular Army?
“I said ‘I live in Townsville and have a lovely house on the beach, why would I want to join the Army?’ And they said, ‘well it just so happens that the job we want you to do is in Townsville’.
“So I was the Senior Medical Officer of Third Brigade for eight years and I went overseas twice with them.”
In 2001, he was awarded the Conspicuous Service Medal. In 2005, he was appointed Medical Officer to Prime Minister John Howard for the duration of the Pacific Islands Forum in PNG, standing in briefly for Dr Graeme Killer who was the permanent Medical Officer to the PM.
“Then in 2011, I got another one of those phone calls – would you like to come to Canberra?” he says.
Promoted to Colonel, Dr Likeman was appointed Director of Army Health. He was awarded the Order of Australia Medal in the Australia Day Honours 2019.
Now, ‘quietly’ retired on the Gold Coast, he continues his writing ventures – dedicated to Australia’s wartime doctors. It is an ongoing task, with more volumes underway.
“Somebody has got to write the history of this … and you know where the buck stops,” he says.
“And each one unfolds into the next one.”
BY CHRIS JOHNSON
Published: 05 Sep 2019