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Professor John Rendle-Short: a paradoxical life?


Many readers of this blog owe a debt of gratitude to Professor John Rendle-Short, and this is the case whether you know his name or not. Described as an “esteemed and highly respected paediatrician”, his career was extraordinarily productive and influential. In Australia, about 2600 doctors graduated from the University of Queensland with knowledge of child development and health gained under his leadership. Since 1984, the Rendle-Short Gold Medal has been awarded to medical students gaining best marks in paediatrics and child health. His academic work started in 1950 when he became a Registrar to neonates in Cardiff. He authored a textbook, A Synopsis of Children’s Diseases, that passed through six editions and was used as a standard text on four continents. His move to Sheffield University in 1954 stimulated his interest in clinical research.

“He was an important participant in major pioneering trials for the drug treatment of rheumatic fever in children, in research on the growth and development of normal babies, on feeding problems in infancy and childhood and on pioneering studies of the metabolic and electrolyte defects seen in children with cystic fibrosis.” (page 65)

Emigration to Australia came in 1961 when he was appointed the Foundation Professor of Child Health at the University of Queensland. His pioneering character meant that he took the opportunity to innovate. For example, he was able to influence the architecture if the new Child Health Building. He implemented:

“the concept of establishing ‘live-in’ rooms for mothers with their sick or injured children. He insisted there be three ‘mothering-in’ rooms in the new Professorial Ward and Turner Ward at the Children’s Hospital in Brisbane. When he was appointed to establish the first academic Paediatric Unit in Queensland, children’s hospitals everywhere were formal institutions. It was an era of white walls, white chairs, white cots, white linen, white nurses’ uniforms, white doctors’ clothes and coats, and regulation white pyjamas for the children. His concept of ‘rooming-in’ was the first chink in what, it is now appreciated, was an unnecessary bastion of regimentation.” (page 66)

His personal research interests focused on childhood autism.

“He organised the first Seminar on Paediatrics in Queensland. The theme was autism. His research articles and two films on autism were pioneering in their day. One was translated into French, German, Spanish, Italian and Japanese. He was the Founder of the Autistic Association of Queensland and Chairman of its Medical Committee for 15 years. He was an invited Guest Lecturer on autism in each of the Australian capital cities and at forums in Singapore, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Zurich, Addis Ababa, Athens, the United States and the United Kingdom. His eminence in this new and special field of autism research was acknowledged in 1981 by the Advance Australia Award ‘For Outstanding Contributions to Autism Therapy’.” (page 66)

Rendle-Short’s biographer is obviously impressed by his subject. He paints a picture of a talented man, worthy of our esteem. However, the biographer consistently presents Rendle-Short’s convictions about life being the miraculous creation of God as an “apparent paradox”. We are presented with a Janus-like portrait, where two contrasting personas come together in an improbable coexistence.

“What occasionally surfaced was Professor Rendle-Short’s belief in the literal truth of the Old Testament. As a life-long devout Fundamentalist and Creationist, he was a leader variously in the Plymouth Brethren, the Dutch Reform Church and (continuously throughout his life) in several other conservative Protestant religions. He wrote tracts and spoke at many forums on ‘creation science’. This apparent paradox in his life – a modern scientific clinician on the one hand, yet a Creationist on the other – in no way impinged on his care of children. Rather, as a devout Christian he had a deep respect, even a reverence, for all children.” (page 67)

I find it disturbing that, instead of recognising an integrated, coherent Rendle-Short, the biographer attempts to create an impenetrable barrier between his professional career and his personal beliefs. We read comments like this: “John Rendle-Short’s life was an extreme example of a stereotype of biographic dichotomy; and for this reason is recorded here.” (pages 67-68). This does not ring true: despite human complexities, what we believe affects what we do. Rendle-Short was not an odd-ball with an idiosyncratic personality, but someone who put his personal beliefs into action. The words that follow reveal that the biographer does not understand his subject:

“He was elected as the World Chairman of Creation Ministries International and the Foundation Chairman of the Creation Science Foundation (UK). Again, he never proselytised these startling beliefs in the clinical or academic domain in which he was a dominant figure. Rather, to those of us with whom he was a close personal and professional colleague, it was as if he lived in two parallel universes – his university and hospital-based life on the one hand and the deeply spiritual and religious life in which he lived and moved, on the other.” (page 67-68)

To counter this interpretation, I want to suggest that Rendle-Short’s life was a unity, where his worldview beliefs and values permeated his professional life and guided key decisions. His Christian worldview allowed him to listen and take seriously those mothers who reported that their babies were “salty” – leading to a breakthrough in the medical treatment of cystic fibrosis. His Christian worldview affected the design of the new Child Health Building in Queensland:

“John Rendle-Short saw the opportunity in Australia of pioneering the concept of establishing ‘live-in’ rooms for mothers with their sick or injured children. He insisted there be three ‘mothering-in’ rooms in the new Professorial Ward and Turner Ward at the Children’s Hospital in Brisbane. When he was appointed to establish the first academic Paediatric Unit in Queensland, children’s hospitals everywhere were formal institutions. It was an era of white walls, white chairs, white cots, white linen, white nurses’ uniforms, white doctors’ clothes and coats, and regulation white pyjamas for the children. His concept of ‘rooming-in’ was the first chink in what, it is now appreciated, was an unnecessary bastion of regimentation.” (page 66)

His Christian worldview affected the importance placed on parental involvement in medical treatment:

“John Rendle-Short’s concept of ‘the whole child’, together with his teaching, is perhaps his most important legacy. He insisted, fought for and ultimately achieved interdisciplinary teamwork in the care of individual children. This was a different paradigm from the authoritarian and paternalistic, exclusive doctor– patient dyad that was the norm in Australian and British children’s hospitals before the early 1960s. He took an active interest in parent support groups.” (p.66)

More could be said on this theme, but we are limited by what the biographer has written. However, we can contribute the thought that medical treatment from a Christian worldview draws from the paradigm of design. The human body and its functioning displays design principles, and the more we understand these principles, the more effective will be our treatments of mal-functioning. The recent push to adopt “Darwinian medicine” is an alien intrusion into a discipline that has proved the merits of ‘design-thinking’ innumerable times.

A brief reference is made to three Christian books authored by John Rendle-Short. These are: Man: Ape or Image (1984); Reasonable Christianity (1991) and Green Eye of the Storm (1998). The latter is particularly important for understanding the intellectual journey travelled by its author. Rendle-Short grew up with the idea that ‘evolution’ was God’s method of creating and that it is possible to be a Christian Darwinist. However, he came to realise that harmonisation is indefensible and that deeper issues are at stake. Green Eye of the Storm explores these issues through the lives and writings of four men: Philip Gosse (1810-1888), George Romanes (1848-1894), Arthur Rendle Short (1880-1953) and himself. The longest section is devoted to Arthur Rendle Short (ARS), John’s father: a world-class surgeon and a very influential leader among UK evangelical Christians. (I can affirm my own appreciation of ARS, for I acquired several of his books during my student days that were extremely helpful). Rendle-Short explains that his father became increasingly uncomfortable with theistic evolution and was constantly seeking “more light” on controversial questions. In his autobiographical chapters, he traces his own journey and experiences of finding more light on these issues.

If anyone is under the delusion that Rendle-Short’s life was a “paradox” and that he lived in “two parallel universes”, they should read and digest his own account of how a biblically-grounded worldview integrates the whole of life. His anecdotes include numerous conversations he had with medical colleagues that demonstrate that he did not hide from them his approach to creation and origins. He was well aware that people can live like a schizophrenic, but he distanced both himself and his father from that caricature:

“My father lived two public lives. By saying this I do not wish to imply that he separated his Christian profession from his practice of medicine. On the contrary, these two major interests were fully integrated. ARS lived a full life as a medical man, but also had a ministry as a Christian, often speaking at two or three meetings in a week.” (Green Eye, p.145)

To conclude, it is worth noting that John Rendle-Short is not an isolated case of a creationist medic. In Green Eye of the Storm, he refers to Dr A.E. Wilder-Smith, Professor of Pharmacology, who challenged him to think more closely about origins and whose writings he found highly persuasive. More recently, we should note Professor Terry Hamblin, whose expertise was in plasma exchange; myelodysplastic syndrome; monoclonal antibody therapy; stem cell transplantation; and chronic lymphocytic leukaemia.
Even more recently, Professor Norman Nevin was hailed in one obituary as “a pioneer in the science of genetics”. Some of Prof Nevin’s views on origins can be found in Should Christians Embrace Evolution? (IVP 2009), a work to which he contributed as well as being its editor. In a chapter on homology (p137), the study of anatomical and physiological features in similar organisms (often used as evidence for evolution and common descent), his conclusion is stated thus:

“The facts of comparative anatomy provide no support for evolution in the way conceived by Darwin and research at the molecular level has not demonstrated a correspondence between the structure of the gene and the structural and physical homology.” (p142)

None of these men display characteristics deserving the description: “paradox”. None of them lived in “two parallel universes”. The approach taken by the biographer, John Pean, serves to reveal the conceptual blocks that arise when worldviews collide. We recognise it every time Darwinian zealots call advocates of intelligent design “IDiots”. We should note it every time they refuse to engage with evidence-based arguments and dismiss them as religiously inspired. We should understand that the clash of worldviews reaches into the educational world, with policy-makers insisting that only science based on naturalism has a content that is evidence-based, and all other worldviews are religious and have no connection with science. We look forward to the day when this will be perceived as naturalistic propaganda masquerading as science.

Professor Tyndale John Rendle-Short (1919–2010), British and Australian paediatrician: A life in two domains
John Pearn
Journal of Medical Biography, May 2014, vol. 22, no. 2, 63-70 | doi: 10.1177/0967772013479508

Abstract: Professor Tyndale John Rendle-Short (1919–2010), a British and Australian paediatrician, lived a professional life of considerable influence in two domains – academic paediatrics and fundamentalist theology. A Cambridge medical graduate (1943) and doctor-soldier, he was appointed as the Foundation Professor of Child Health at the University of Queensland (1961). In Australia, he was a pioneer in three paediatric developments (‘rooming-in’ for mothers in hospitals, autism research and cystic fibrosis). His A Synopsis of Children’s Diseases was published in six editions, was translated into three languages and was used as a standard paediatric textbook on four Continents. Distinct from this clinical domain, as a passionate anti-Darwinist his fundamentalist theology was that variously self-described as ‘theistic evolution’ (believing in ‘progressive Creationism’) and later that of ‘six-literal day young-earth Creation’. He established and was the Foundation Chairman of the Creation Science Foundation (UK) and was World Chairman of the US-based Creation Ministries International. This biography is a record of this perhaps paradoxical and unique life.

Thanks to those who have offered their thoughts above. The secular mindset is so pervasive today, and it is remarkable how difficult it appears to be for secularists to realise the straitjacket that confines them. In this context, JHD's comments are highly pertinent. David Tyler
I knew Professor Rendle-Short for many years, and found him to be a remarkable man who was a pleasure to work with and to discuss theology. You could switch the conversation from child health to creation science (a frequent occurrence) and find him as astute and passionate about one as the other. I am pleased that David Tyler has pointed out that Rendle-Short's biographer has not done justice to the whole man. Perhaps when someone writes a biography of John Pearn they will point out that he seemed very knowledgeable on some things but was a paradox in that he fell short of the target when understanding how someone's faith impacts every area of their life. TimT
Why aren't there any biographical notes that say... John Doe Materialist (fill in name of favorite atheist who was still a decent moral human being) was a paradox in action. In one life, he was a dedicated materialist who, because of his commitment to science, knew that every person he interacted with was just a non-special bag of chemicals. He knew in his heart that every pretense of love, joy, amusement, or other precious human emotions, was just a physical arrangement of various chemicals and the interaction of large molecules with almost impossible, but ultimately necessary, random heritages. He knew that all he observed was the result of purposeless, unguided interactions of soulless matter. Yet he participated in this game of life with all the verve of an orthodox religionist that still believed in the sacredness of life.... JDH
I didn't know Rendle-Short, but I did know Terry Hamblin as we were columnists in the same somewhat scurrilous and anti-establishment medical journal, World Medicine. His life certainly wasn't split in two - his Christian faith was obvious from his medical writing, and I remember discussing it with him, sandwiched between other medical writers at an editorial dinner in the Café Royal in the early 1980s - talking about his creationism amongst other things. It seems hard for people to realise that Christianity is not an anomaly or an add-on in a professional life (a very effective one in his case, as in Rendle-Short's). Jon Garvey
Professor Rendle-Short was a man who lived a full and integrated life of service. He was inspired and led by the God he knew both in the story of the Bible and in his own living experience. Believing that all things were made for God and by God is the position of all Christian people. It is just on the details that we differ. For Professor Rendle-Short, given the extensive though not exhaustive data he had access to, accepting a plain reading of Genesis came to make more sense to him than any other big picture that was on offer. Knowing God as Creator helped him be who he was. He is not alone in this. idnet.com.au
Seems the rednecks and hill-billys are in pretty good company, intellectually-speaking. Can't you hear Jesus laughing: 'Didn't I tell you!' Axel

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