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Newton, Sir Hibbert Alan Stephen (1887–1949)

by Benjamin K. Rank

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Sir Hibbert Alan Stephen Newton (1887-1949), surgeon, was born on 30 April 1887 at Malvern, Melbourne, son of Hibbert Henry Newton, civil servant, and his wife Clara Violet, née Stephen. He attended Haileybury College, Brighton, where his liberal classical education promoted the strong appreciation of the English language which coloured his future professional life.

Alan Newton's surgical career commenced in 1909, when he graduated as Beaney scholar in surgery at the University of Melbourne, where he also graduated M.S. in 1912. After two years residency at the (Royal) Melbourne Hospital, he became an assistant to Frederic Bird, an eminent staff surgeon. This was interrupted by a short period overseas which included work in the laboratory of (Sir) Victor Horsley at University College, London, and some time with Harvey Cushing in the United States of America, which promoted his early interest in head injuries. Returning to Melbourne in 1913, he was appointed surgeon to out-patients at the Melbourne Hospital. His association with the hospital continued throughout his life. He was appointed surgeon to in-patients in 1927 and consulting surgeon in 1946.

In September 1916 Newton embarked with the Australian Imperial Force and in 1917-20 served as captain and temporary major in the Australian Army Medical Corps in France at casualty clearing stations and general hospitals. Before returning to Australia in November 1919 he had attained fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons of England. On 5 June 1919 at Adel Church, York, he married Mary Cicely Wicksteed.

Newton quickly acquired an extensive surgical practice and was acclaimed a great technician, particularly in thyroid surgery. A foundation fellow in 1927 of the (Royal) Australasian College of Surgeons, he devoted much time and energy to its establishment and development and to its most important objective—to raise the standards of surgery in Australia and New Zealand. Elected to the council in 1929, he served as secretary and treasurer (1929-33), censor-in-chief (a term he introduced) in 1933-43, and ultimately president (1943-45). His clarity of objective thought and expression did much to establish the college precedents of policy and ceremonial.

A dynamic teacher, Newton had a very great influence on those fortunate enough to be his students or house surgeons. His terse manner, stately bearing, rather staccato voice and strong sense of propriety made him somewhat intimidating to students and nurses on first impression, but all were quick to learn and appreciate his unflagging sincerity of purpose, his integrity and his interest in each individual student. Quick to sift essentials of diagnosis, he would make his point to a student group with some well-expressed and pithy comment which left an indelible impression. Many of his followers had the benefit of his strong sponsorship and unobtrusive kindly gestures. Close associates recognized that his dominating façade covered shyness and frequent nervousness.

Newton's strong capacity to influence people and his genius for clear and decisive action were widely recognized and put to full use throughout World War II when he served on the Medical Co-ordination Committee (deputy-chairman 1939-42) and as chairman in 1940-45 of the Medical Equipment Control Committee which supervised the importing, manufacture and distribution of medical and veterinary equipment and drugs. Given wide scope and authority, he gained the respect of manufacturers, importers and government departments alike, becoming masterly at circumventing or cutting red-tape. Impatient with fools and the half-hearted, he inspired loyalty from those who worked with him. (Sir) Robert Menzies judged that 'no better piece of work was done during the course of the war by any man in any place'.

Newton's administrative skills were expressed in many directions. He was an active councillor of the Victorian branch of the British Medical Association (vice-president 1937-38), a council-member of the University of Melbourne and president of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research. His capacity for lucid thought was also appreciated in the world of business: he was a respected director of the National Mutual Life Association of Australasia Ltd, Trustees Executors & Agency Co. and the Fourth Victoria Permanent Building Society.

Compelled by poor health to retire from practice in 1947, Newton became Stewart lecturer in surgery at the university. In this capacity he prepared the way for chairs in surgery and promoted strong university liaison with the teaching hospitals. Two of his most notable addresses were the Sir Richard Stawell oration of 1947, 'Silver spoons and golden genes', and 'The history of thyroid surgery in Melbourne' (1948).

Knighted in 1936 Newton died of chronic respiratory disease on 4 August 1949 in East Melbourne and was cremated with Anglican rites. His wife, son and daughter survived him. Menzies said of him: 'His mental gifts, rare and glittering as they were, because I always believe him one of the great minds Australia has produced, served only as part of the man. His character had a simplicity and a nobility which no words could describe. With all his eminence he was a simple Christian'. His portrait by William McInnes hangs in the Royal Australian College of Surgeons.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Mackay, Alan Newton (1951), and for publications list
  • K. S. Inglis, Hospital and Community (Melb, 1958)
  • F. M. Burnet, Changing Patterns (Melb, 1968)
  • J. M. Butler, Time Isn't Long Enough (Melb, 1971)
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 1 Oct 1949
  • Age (Melbourne), 15 July 1950.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Benjamin K. Rank, 'Newton, Sir Hibbert Alan Stephen (1887–1949)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/newton-sir-hibbert-alan-stephen-7834/text13603, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 1 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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