James Estcourt Hughes

Emeritus Surgeon, Royal Adelaide Hospital

MB BS(Adel) MS (Adel) FRACS

Dr Estcourt Hughes, well known as a surgeon and medical historian, died in Adelaide on 17 February, 1996, at the good age of ninety one years.

Sir Henry Simpson Newland was his surgical hero throughout his life.

After four years as resident (1927) and registrar (1928-30), Estcourt Hughes went to Great Britain for surgical training.  He then returned, well trained by the standards of the day and became Honorary Clinical Assistant, Royal Adelaide Hospital (1936-40).

Estcourt Hughes had a long standing interest in naval surgery and received a commission as Surgeon Lieutenant, Royal Australian Naval Reserve (1936).  In the Second World War he saw active service in the Pacific.  He was surgeon in the heavy cruiser HMAS Australia in the Battle of Leyte Gulf when the Imperial Japanese Navy took its mortal wound from the United States and allied fleets commanded by Admiral C W Nimitz.  On 21 October, 1944, a Japanese bomber crashed into the foremast and bridge of HMAS Australia, killing or wounding some seventy crew members including the cruiser’s captain.  The bridge was set on fire by blazing petrol and many of the casualties were from burns.  Surgeon Lieutenant Commander Hughes, as he then was, operated on many of the injured and was mentioned in dispatches for his fine work under dangerous conditions.  After the war, he remained in the naval reserve and rose to be surgeon captain.

Estcourt Hughes returned to Royal Adelaide Hospital (1946).  At first, he specialised in neurosurgery.  During the war he had developed an interest in head injuries and initially he took the post of Honorary Assistant Neurosurgeon, Royal Adelaide Hospital.  He held this position for five years.  However, he had had no formal training in neurosurgery unlike those army surgeons who had served in the mobile neurosurgical units formed by Sir Hugh Cairns.  His chief, Sir Leonard Lindon, was also largely self-taught and could not supply his need for further training.  He left neurosurgery to return to general surgery as Honorary Assistant Surgeon (1951-56), Honorary Surgeon (1956-64), and Honorary Consulting Surgeon, subsequently restyled Emeritus Surgeon (1964-96), Royal Adelaide Hospital.  He was always, in the best sense, a conservative surgeon, deeply concerned for his patient’s welfare.  He was much respected as a caring and compassionate doctor, a careful operator and an excellent teacher.

He then entered into his second career as a self taught historian.  He had a lifelong interest in history and delivered the Moran Lecture (1959) on the life and times of the Elizabethan surgeon, John Woodall.  After his retirement he published A History of the Royal Adelaide Hospital (1967) and a second expanded edition (1982).  His second smaller book being a biography of Sir Henry Simpson Newland (1972) which does full justice to that brilliant surgeon.  It has been stated that these two books deserve much more interest than they have been given.

In 1935 he married Elspeth, daughter of Dr and Mrs Jamison Black; he is survived by her and by their five children, ten grandchildren and two great grandchildren.

In his old age, he made it clear that he saw his cherished traditions to be in danger and he regretted changes which he saw around him.  Professor Donald Simpson reminds us:

This is of course, the normal experience of old age.  But I believe that these British traditions which he loved and for which he risked his life in war and gave his life’s work in peace, are certain to endure in our practice of medicine and in the wider life of our community.  They will endure because they have been deeply rooted by the lives of James Estcourt Hughes and many thousands of men and women like him.  The ideals that he and many others have passed to their pupils, ideals of courtesy and integrity, good manners, medical ideals of an exact compassion for the sick and injured, are in the bedrock of our society and they will be his memorial.

This notation is based on an obituary by Professor Donald Simpson which appeared in Vital Signs Vol 5 No 1 April, 1996, and is published with his permission.