Mayes, Bruce Toomba

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Bruce Mayes was appointed to the first full-time Chair of Obstetrics at the University of Sydney.

Bruce was born in 1903 in Toowoomba, west of Brisbane. His father was Mayor there at the time and, doubtless because of this, added the name Toowoomba to his son’s birth certificate. As might have been anticipated, this led to terrible ragging when the poor boy left his native town to study at the University of Sydney at St Andrews College and, with parental permission, he changed his middle name to Toomba. This should have saved him from further ragging had he not chosen to make Obstetrics and Gynaecology his life’s work–in the event, he became known later in life as the “man who took the womb out of Toowoomba”.

Bruce came to Sydney in 1921 to study medicine, and graduated in 1927, with honours. After initial clinical training in Sydney, he gained the Walter and Eliza Hall Travelling Medical Research Fellowship in 1929. He took the unusual step for those days of working in Frankfurt, Germany under Professor Ludwig Seitz, where he helped to develop the first bioassays to confirm human pregnancy. Thence he went to Berlin and, later still, for a year to University College Hospital where he worked with his great mentor, F J Browne.

He returned to practice as a specialist obstetrician and gynaecologist in Brisbane remaining there until 1941, when he was appointed to the first full-time Chair of Obstetrics at the University of Sydney He then renewed his association with the Royal Hospital for Women, at that time a teaching hospital of this University, and began his long association with King George V Memorial Hospital, which opened in the year of his appointment. He also served as a Gynaecological Consultant to the Royal Australian Air Force.

He assumed the enormous burden of all university-based teaching in his professed area, as well as a heavy load in the clinical teaching at the Royal Hospital for Women, the Women’s Hospital Crown Street and King George V Hospital, later on also at St Margaret’s Hospital. In 1950, he published his now classic Textbook of Obstetrics, which became the standard undergraduate text for medical students throughout Australia and in much of the English-speaking world.

In 1954, Queen Elizabeth II made her first visit to Australia and agreed to the formation of the Coronation Gift Fund. Against twenty other competitors, Bruce was successful in securing funds to build the Queen Elizabeth II Research Institute. The Queen Elizabeth II Research Institute for Mothers and Infants was eventually built on land at the fringe of Number One Oval, and opened by the Queen Mother in 1958. By the time he retired, he had added two Associate Professors, a Reader and a large supporting staff to a department which has attracted substantial outside research support.

After the long stewardship of the late Sir Harold Dew as Dean of Medicine (1940-1952), the Faculty elected Edward Ford for five years (1952-1957) as Dean followed by Bruce Mayes, who served with distinction from 1957 to 1959. In 1964, he achieved the amalgamation of gynaecology with obstetrics, the former having been placed until then within the Department of Surgery.

During the time the Duke of Gloucester was Governor General, Bruce was appointed Honorary Surgeon to the Duchess of Gloucester, an appointment that turned out to require an active rather than honorary role. He regarded this appointment as an honour for his Faculty and the University. He in turn was honoured by appointment as a Member of the Royal Victorian Order.

Another deep commitment, in which he was outstandingly successful, was to his Professional College. The Royal Australian College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists was yet to be established and the professional standards of obstetrics and gynaecology were then overseen by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists from London. Bruce was instrumental in establishing the Australian Regional Council of the RCOG and was successively its Secretary, Treasurer and finally, Chairman.

In 1954, he was the first of only two Australians to be honoured with an appointment as Sims-Black Travelling Professor of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. In this capacity he taught in every medical school in the United Kingdom.

Mayes was not political but served his politicians well. Together with Grace Cuthbert Browne from the State Department of Health, he established and secured the Maternal Mortality Committee at a time in history, when childbirth was one of the great and sad executioners of young women. His advice was valued by both state and federal ministers.

Finally, he was a great writer, and continued to exercise his skill long after he became Professor Emeritus. His most recent book, published in 1987 when he was 84 years old, was his autobiography Babies for Ladies–my 60 years of caring for women.

Bruce received further public recognition in the year after his retirement when he was appointed Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George. His younger academic colleagues at the Queen Elizabeth Research Institute at the same time commissioned the portrait by Clifton Pugh that hangs in his Institute.[1]

Citation: Mellor, Lise (2008) Mayes, Bruce Toomba. Faculty of Medicine Online Museum and Archive, University of Sydney.

An alternate version appears in: Mellor, L. 150 Years, 150 Firsts: The People of the Faculty of Medicine (2006) Sydney, Sydney University Press.