Designatory Letters: 
MB Karolinska 1955, MD Karolinsha 1960, PhD Karolinska 1968

(Contributed by Drs Ian Laing and Henry Halliday)

Bengt Robertson FRCPE died in Stockholm on 7th December 2008 after a long illness borne with great courage. He led an extensive research programme into the development of pulmonary surfactant for extremely preterm infants. This culminated in the production of Curosurf© from the pig lung, which many Neonatologists consider to be the most effective surfactant available in the world today. Few clinicians realise that the name CU-RO-SURF was derived from the surnames of Tore Curstedt and Bengt Robertson who had collaborated in its synthesis.

Bengt Robertson studied medicine at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, graduating MD in 1960. In 1968 he was awarded a PhD after publication of his thesis entitled “The intrapulmonary arterial pattern in normal infancy and in transposition of the great arteries”. In 1970 he was appointed Consultant in Pediatric Pathology at St Görans’s Hospital in Stockholm. From 1974 to 2000 he was Director of the Division for Experimental Perinatal Pathology in the Department of Women and Child Health at the Karolinska Institutet. In 2000, Bengt Robertson was appointed as Adjunct Professor of Perinatal Pathology, a post which recognised his research contribution and his Directorship of the Division of Pediatric Pathology at the Karolinska Hospital from 1994-1997.

In 1959, Professor Mary Ellen Avery, also a Fellow of this College, showed that respiratory distress syndrome (RDS) was caused by a deficiency of surfactant production in preterm infants. In the 1970s Bengt Robertson and Goran Enhorning, an Obstetrician also from Stockholm, showed that placing natural surfactant into the lungs of immature rabbits was an effective treatment for RDS. In 1988 an international randomised controlled trial, inspired and led by Bengt Robertson, showed that the instillation of Curosurf© into the lungs of preterm babies reduced the incidence of air leaks and mortality in infants with severe RDS.

Professor Robertson’s work was recognised in 1996 by the award of the King Faisal International Prize for Medicine. He was delighted also to become a Fellow of this College in a private ceremony in 1996.

Professor Robertson wrote 5 textbooks and published more than 700 papers.

It is extraordinary to record that this remarkable man was also father of eight children, a poet, an artist, an excellent chess player and an outstanding linguist.

His funeral was also remarkable. On a frosty afternoon in Stockholm, singing “Abide with Me” in Swedish seemed entirely natural to Scots, Irish, Danes, Chinese, Germans, South Americans, Italians, Slovenians and Spaniards. Bengt had asked for music to be provided by a New Orleans Jazz Band and the Master of the Music of RCPE, who wrote a lament for the occasion. During his rich life Bengt had played the piano, flute, trumpet and bass tuba in the Jubilee Jazz Band which specialised in Dixieland music. The St Mary Magdalene Church in Stockholm echoed to the sounds of a fine Dixieland Band, and his family remembered Bengt with both sadness and joy. Distinguished scientists travelled from all parts of the world, from Venezuela to Shanghai, to honour this great man.

Although Professor Robertson was one of the greatest scientists of his age, he was also charming, fascinating, funny and always welcoming to new friends and associates no matter how junior. He excited young research workers with his vivacity and his scholarly approach to his work. He attracted respect and affection from everyone who met him.

Curosurf© is given now to premature babies throughout the developed world and also in some emerging nations. There can be few clinicians in any discipline who have saved the lives of so many people. The Edinburgh College is proud to have numbered Professor Bengt Robertson in the Fellowship.