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Dunhill, Sir Thomas Peel (1876–1957)

by Ivo D. Vellar

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Sir Thomas Peel Dunhill (1876-1957), surgeon, was born on 3 December 1876 at Tragowel, a grazing property near Kerang, Victoria, son of John Webster Dunhill, station-manager from Yorkshire, England, and his wife Mary Elizabeth, née Peel. His father died of typhoid fever in 1878; his mother then returned to her birthplace, Inverleigh, near Geelong. She later married a miner, William Lawry, and the family moved to Daylesford, where Tom attended the local grammar school. After matriculating at the University of Melbourne, he studied pharmacy and was registered in June 1898, but he never practised. Instead, in 1899 he began to study medicine.

Dunhill's undergraduate career was brilliant. He graduated in 1903 with three first-class honours and exhibitions in medicine and in obstetrics and gynaecology. The tragic death of his younger brother John, a doctor of exceptional ability who died from septic complications while trying to save a patient, spurred him to a single-minded application of his studies, further accentuating a certain reserve in his make-up. He joined the resident staff at the (Royal) Melbourne Hospital, and here he began his lifelong interest in the thyroid gland and in particular exophthalmic goitre. He practised removal of the thyroid gland in goats and then fed the goat milk to patients suffering from thyrotoxicosis, as was the custom at that time.

Although Dunhill was showing outstanding qualities, his career prospects at the Melbourne Hospital were dim. He came from the country and had little money and no connexions. However, his talents came to the notice of Mother Berchmans Daly, and in 1905 at her invitation, he joined the staff at St Vincent's Hospital as physician to the out-patients department. In 1906 he was awarded a doctorate in medicine from the University of Melbourne and, deciding on a surgical career, was immediately appointed surgeon to out-patients at St Vincent's.

By this time Dunhill had become disenchanted with the medical treatment of exophthalmic goitre and in 1907, against all prevailing opinion, he decided to carry out removal of the thyroid gland as the definitive cure for the condition. More important, he carried out thyroidectomy in patients who were suffering from cardiac failure as a result of the over-active thyroid gland. He was spectacularly successful and by 1910 had performed 312 operations on the thyroid with a mortality rate of 1 per cent; at that time the mortality of thyroidectomy in the great London hospitals was over 30 per cent. Dunhill pioneered the bilateral resection operation on the thyroid and was the first surgeon to advocate and carry out surgery successfully in the thyrocardiac. By 1911 he was the leading surgeon in his field in Australasia and in that year visited surgical centres in England and the United States of America. His paper delivered to the Royal Society of Medicine in London in 1912, describing his results in the surgical treatment of exophthalmic goitre, produced a sensation.

On returning to Australia in 1912 Dunhill was made surgeon to in-patients at St Vincent's Hospital and chairman of the medical staff. On 12 February 1914 he married a widow, Edith Florence McKellar, née Affleck. He acquired a wine-cellar and his somewhat 'straight laced' outlook on life mellowed a little.

In January 1906 Dunhill had been commissioned a captain in the Australian Army Medical Corps. On the outbreak of World War I he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force as a major and was allotted to the 1st Australian General Hospital. In July 1918 he was appointed consulting surgeon to the Rouen area in France, and there he met and impressed many leading English surgeons, particularly George Gask. Dunhill was mentioned in dispatches three times and was appointed C.V.O. and C.M.G. in 1919. During the war he was asked to operate on a number of desperately ill thyroid patients in London (the English surgeons had refused to do so) and all recovered. The foundations were thereby laid for his future successes in England.

Dunhill returned to Australia in 1919 with the rank of colonel and rejoined the staff of St Vincent's. A brilliant and lucrative surgical career in Australia lay before him. In 1920, however, he accepted an invitation from Gask to join the professional surgical unit at St Bartholomew's Hospital, London. Within a few years he had established himself as the leading thyroid surgeon in England and the best general surgeon at St Bartholomew's. Eminent overseas surgeons flocked to his operating theatre to witness his technique. His greatest triumph, however, was in medical education. By patient and persistent application he convinced the physicians to refer thyrotoxic patients for surgery before they became desperately ill. In this he was aided by such outstanding English physicians as Dr John Parkinson, Lord Dawson and Sir Thomas (Lord) Horder. Dunhill was appointed surgeon to George V in 1928 and then successively to Edward VIII, George VI (becoming sergeant surgeon in 1949) and finally extra surgeon to Elizabeth II.

Many honours were showered on the expatriate Australian. In 1930 the fellowship of the (Royal) College of Surgeons of Australasia was bestowed on him and he was appointed K.C.V.O. in 1933 and G.C.V.O. in 1949. In 1939 the Royal College of Surgeons of England conferred on him an honorary fellowship, the first to a surgeon still in active surgical practice in England. During World War II Dunhill was appointed consulting surgeon to the A.I.F. with the rank of brigadier. Although he had retired from active hospital work at St Bartholomew's he participated in the emergency wartime medical services.

Dunhill taught and influenced succeeding generations of surgeons by example and by practice: lecturing and writing did not come easily to him. The pragmatic streak was evident in his younger days for he was a keen exponent of the outdoor life. Although short and rather frail-looking, he was physically tough: a capable canoeist, a mountaineer and an enthusiast for snow-sports. Before 1913 he often fished on the Snowy River; later he spent weeks on the west coast of Norway. He was an expert gardener and collected antique furniture.

Dunhill's wife died in 1942. His last years were marked by increasing ill health and he was plagued by the insomnia which had worried him all his life. He died a somewhat lonely man at his home Tragowel, Hampstead, on 22 December 1957. He left an estate valued for probate at £138,461. His portrait by James Gunn hangs in the College of Surgeons, Spring Street, Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • Archibald Watson Memorial Lecture (Melb, priv print, 1967, copy RACS)
  • St Vincent's Hospital (Melbourne), Annual Report, 1905-20
  • British Medical Journal, 4 Jan 1958, p 43
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 22 Mar 1958, p 404
  • Medical History, Jan 1974, p 22.

Citation details

Ivo D. Vellar, 'Dunhill, Sir Thomas Peel (1876–1957)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/dunhill-sir-thomas-peel-6046/text10339, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 1 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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