Vernon Collins Oration – The ethical life of the hospital

Vernon Collins Oration 2021

Professor Lynn Gillam AM


The Vernon Collins Oration was established in 1981, in memory of Professor Vernon Collins, the first Medical Director of The Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne.  Vernon Collins held this position from 1949 to 1960 and then became the first Professor of Child Health in the University of Melbourne, before retiring in 1974.

The 2021 Vernon Collins Oration will be delivered by Professor Lynn Gillam AM, an experienced clinical ethicist and Academic Director of the Children’s Bioethics Centre at The Royal Children’s Hospital.  Lynn is also Professor in Health Ethics at the University of Melbourne, in the Department of Paediatrics. She provides clinical ethics case consultation, policy advice and leads research in paediatric clinical ethics. In 2018, Lynn was awarded the RCH Chairman’s Medal, in recognition of this work.

Lynn also teaches ethics in the MD course, and other health professional degree courses at the University of Melbourne, and supervises research students at Honours, Masters and PhD levels.  In 2019, Lynn was made a Member of the Order of Australia for service to medical education in the field of bioethics.



A hospital, I have increasingly come to understand, has an ethical life of its own. It is a complex, dynamic, living web of connections between the instincts, feelings, and thoughts of thousands of individuals. Between them, these individuals make thousands of decisions of ethical significance daily, some alone, and some in groups; some very deliberate and deliberated upon, others hardly noticed amongst the daily routine. Over the past ten years or more, I have had the privilege of observing, learning about, and participating in the ethical life of The Royal Children’s Hospital. In this Vernon Collins Oration, which I am honoured to give, I will reflect on this ethical life – how much more there is to the ethical life than ethical decision-making, how important but complex the role of emotions is, and why it matters that we talk with each other about all of this. I will share some of the things I have learned on my journey: from theoretical ethics in a philosophy department, to practical ethics in ward meeting room – but it is not all about leaving ethical theory behind!

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