A Brief History of the Discipline of Surgery

In 1883, when Anderson Stuart opened the University of Sydney Medical School and the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital was established as the first Clinical School, there were no clinical departments, and no Professor of Surgery.

Sydney Hospital became a Clinical School in 1901, followed by St Vincent’s Hospital (now with the University of New South Wales) in 1923, but the first full-time Chair of Surgery was not established until 1928.

Frederick Milford, appointed as the first Lecturer in Surgery, was an energetic, proficient surgeon. He had been the first student to walk the wards of the Sydney Infirmary. He rejected the teachings of Lister, lecturing instead on the value of “laudable pus” and the evil influences of the wind, particularly when it blew from the west. Alexander (later Sir Alexander) MacCormick, a master surgeon and adherent of Listerism, succeeded him in 1889 and in 1914 was himself succeeded by Frances Percival Sandes. One of the early students of the University of Sydney Medical School, Sandes had graduated in 1889 and held the position of Lecturer in Surgery until 1921 when he moved to the McCaughey Chair as Professor of The Principles and Practice of Surgery, which he occupied until 1928. This was a part-time teaching chair only, with no research component and little administrative power.

The Bosch bequest of 1928 allowed the foundation of the first full-time Chair in Surgery. Sir Benjamin Edye, a busy private practitioner, acted as the first Bosch Professor of Surgery until 1931 when Harold (later Sir Harold) Dew took up the post and became the first full-time Professor of Surgery at an Australian university. Taking advantage of a well-established Clinical School and the rapid growth in medical knowledge and expertise which characterised the period, Harold Dew gained a reputation for the University of Sydney as a centre of surgical learning and for himself as a surgeon and teacher. He wrote landmark texts on testicular malignancies and hydatid disease. He developed the Clinical School at Royal North Shore Hospital in 1948 and had also contributed to the formation of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, becoming a Fellow in 1928 and President of the College in 1954. He contributed enormously to the expansion and development of the Department, with John (later Sir John) Loewenthal, who succeeded him in 1956, leading it to academic maturity. Politically adroit and determined, John Loewenthal had his own vision of the structure and status appropriate to an academic Department of Surgery. He fostered academic surgery units in the teaching hospitals and gathered about him a team of surgeons whose clinical, teaching and laboratory endeavours placed them, and the Department, at the leading edge of Surgery. He promoted the careers of a series of surgeons recognised as leaders in their fields. The first academic post in Radiology at the University of Sydney was established within the Department of Surgery and he encouraged the establishment of academic Departments of Surgery at Concord in 1963 and Westmead in 1978. He died suddenly in 1980 and is commemorated by the activities of the John Loewenthal Society.

The list of Professors of Surgery in the Department testifies to its past and present strengths: Gerald Milton, Ross Sheil, Miles Little, James May, Frederick Stephens, Thomas Reeve, Thomas Taylor, Murray Pheils, Bill McCarthy, Tim Cartmill, Bill Gibson, Robert Lusby, Les Bokey, Chris Martin, Leigh Delbridge, John Fletcher, Daniel Cass, John Harris, Michael Tonkin, Michael Morgan, John Thompson, David Sonnabend, Richard Allen, Chris O’Brien, Ross Smith.

The years since Sir John Loewenthal have seen further expansion within the New South Wales hospital system continue. The newest Clinical School at Nepean, like Westmead, owes its existence to Sydney’s westward expansion and consequent need for redistribution of hospital services.