Collis, (William) Robert Fitzgerald (‘Bob’) (1900–75), paediatrician, author, and rugby player, was born 16 February 1900 at Kilmore, Killiney, Co. Dublin, one of twin sons (his twin was John Stewart Collis (qv)) of William Stewart Collis, a solicitor in the Dublin firm of Collis & Ward, and Edith Lilla Collis (née Barton); there was at least one other child in the family – the eldest son, Maurice Stewart Collis (qv). The Collises were a distinguished medical family and Robert was a grandson of Maurice Henry Collis (1824–69), surgeon to the Meath hospital. His father was chairman of the Meath Hospital's board of governors. He received his early education at Aravon School, Bray, Co. Wicklow, and subsequently attended Rugby School in England, where he showed little interest in academic matters but established a reputation as a talented sportsman. He ran cross-country and in his final year at the school captained the rugby team. He was in Dublin during the 1916 rising and worked as a Red Cross volunteer.
After leaving Rugby he obtained a commission in the Irish Guards in 1918 but was demobilised before being sent to the front. He went to Trinity College, Cambridge, to study medicine, and during his degree course participated in an exchange scholarship to Yale University in 1921. His time in America was marred by poor health. On finishing his pre-clinical courses he completed his studies at King's College Hospital, London, where he came under the guidance of the famous paediatrician Sir Fredrick Still, and the Rotunda Hospital, Dublin, where he took his practical midwifery course. Throughout this period and in the years that followed he maintained his interest in rugby. A Cambridge blue, he played at hooker and captained numerous sides, including the Cambridge University team, Wanderers (Dublin), Harlequins, London Irish, Surrey, and London. He played inter-provincial matches for Leinster (1919–25) and won seven caps for Ireland (1924–6).
Having graduated MRCS (England), LRCP (London) in 1924, and MB (Cantab.) in 1925, he returned to King's College Hospital, where he became a house physician. He subsequently served as house physician at the Hospital for Sick Children at Great Ormond Street, before taking up a Rockefeller fellowship which allowed him to work in the children's department of the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. On his return to London in 1929 he was appointed research fellow at Great Ormond Street. His work on rheumatic fever and erythema nodosum resulted in the publication of his paper ‘A new conception of the aetiology of erythema nodosum’ in the Quarterly Journal of Medicine in 1932.
Collis had long been keen to return to Dublin, and in 1932 he managed to secure the post of assistant physician at the Meath hospital. In that year also he was appointed physician to the National Children's Hospital and director of the department of paediatrics at the Rotunda Hospital. He played a key role in the establishment of the Irish Paediatric Club (later the Irish Paediatric Association), of which he was elected honorary secretary in 1933, and was a founder member of the Citizens' Housing Council, through which he campaigned for improved housing for the poor. The publication of his well received autobiography, The silver fleece (1936), won him a degree of notoriety in Dublin literary circles. Anxious to highlight the plight of Dublin's poor, he followed the advice of his friend Frank O'Connor (qv) and sought to trade on the reputation he had gained from his autobiography by writing a play, ‘Marrowbone Lane’; set in the Dublin slums, it was performed at the Gate Theatre (October 1939), where it had an extended run of four weeks. The tremendous reaction it provoked led to the formation of the Marrowbone Lane Fund. Three years later Edwards-MacLiammóir Gate Theatre Productions staged Collis's second play, ‘The barrel organ’, in which he focused on tuberculosis, at the Gaiety Theatre.
At the end of the second world war he joined the Red Cross, and was among the first group of physicians to treat survivors of Belsen concentration camp. He immediately set up a children's hospital and later had several orphaned children transferred to the Fairy Hill Hospital in Howth, Co. Dublin. He adopted two of the children himself. It was during his time in Germany that he became close to the Dutch lawyer and fellow rescue worker Han Hogerzeil. Following the break-up of his first marriage to Phyllis Heron (whom he had married in 1927) with whom he had two sons, he married in 1957 Hogerzeil, with whom he also had two sons, the elder of whom died in adolescence. He and Hogerzeil co-wrote Straight on (1947), which gives an account of their Belsen experiences. On his return to Dublin he acted on the suggestion of his sister-in-law Eirene Collis, who was involved in treating cerebral palsy, and founded the National Cerebral Palsy Clinic. His work in this field brought him into contact with the young Christy Brown (qv) whom he assisted over the years. Collis wrote the foreword to Brown's book My left foot (1954).
In 1957 Collis and his wife moved to Nigeria, where he became director of paediatrics at the University College Hospital, Ibadan. With support from the Rockefeller Foundation he went on to establish the Institute of Child Health at Ibadan and later a second such institute at Lagos. He served as professor of paediatrics and director of the Lagos institute from 1962, and later moved to Zaria in northern Nigeria, where he established the department of paediatrics in the new Ahmadu Bello University; he was also appointed dean of the university. A well known and respected figure in Nigeria, he was persuaded by Frank Aiken (qv) to write a series of pro-federal articles in the Irish Times in June 1969 to counter sympathy for Biafra during the Nigerian civil war.
On returning to Ireland in 1970, Collis became consultant to the National Association of Cerebral Palsy and an examiner in final medicine at both TCD and NUI. Between 1973 and 1975 he spent prolonged periods of time at the Dichpalli leper colony in southern India. Among his later publications are The ultimate value (1951), A doctor's Nigeria (1960), Nigeria in conflict (1970), and papers in medical journals. He died 27 May 1975 after a riding accident at his home at Bo Island, Newtownmountkennedy, Co. Wicklow. His second volume of autobiography, To be a pilgrim, was published posthumously.