Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Pye, Aubrey David (1901–1994)

by John H. Pearn

This article was published online in 2018

Aubrey David Dick Pye (1901–1994), surgeon and hospital administrator, was born on 11 June 1901 at Windsor, New South Wales, fourth of five children of New South Wales-born parents Robert Adam Pye, pharmacist, and his wife Esther, née Dunston. His two elder brothers, Cecil and Eric, served in the Australian Imperial Force in World War I, the former being killed in action in 1917. Having attended Windsor Superior Public School and Hayfield (a small boarding school at Carlingford), Aubrey went to Barker College, Hornsby (1915–19), where he was school captain and captain of the first XI cricket and first XV rugby union teams.

At the University of Sydney (MB, ChM, 1925), Pye played rugby and was recorded as ‘quiet, and a keen worker,’ whose ‘slender form may be fairly often seen on the dancing floor’ (Sydney University Medical Society 1924, 88). After graduation, he served as a resident medical officer (1926–27) and medical administrator (1928) at the Newcastle Hospital. In 1929 he travelled to Britain for postgraduate training in surgery, working in hospitals in London and Edinburgh (fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, 1930). Back in New South Wales, he was briefly a general practitioner and probationary surgeon at Muswellbrook.

In September 1931 the Brisbane and South Coast Hospitals Board (BSCHB) unanimously selected Pye from forty-one applicants for the position of assistant general medical superintendent, based at the (Royal) Brisbane Hospital and second-in-charge of the ten (eventually eleven) hospitals under the board’s control. Appointed in 1933 as acting general medical superintendent, he was confirmed in the post on 17 January 1935. When the BSCHB was split in 1959, he became responsible to the new North Brisbane Hospitals Board and continued to oversee the Brisbane Hospital and the board’s seven others. He saw himself as both servant of, and chief executive officer for, the respective boards. His role encompassed administration, surgical practice, hospital construction, and innovations in health care. On 19 March 1931 at St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Parramatta, Sydney, he had married Gwen Finlayson (d. 1988); she supported him throughout his career, particularly in providing the regular hospitality his professional commitments entailed.

Pye’s administrative responsibilities were onerous. From 1933 he chaired the Brisbane Hospital’s medical clinical advisory board. Every second weeknight and every second weekend, alternating with his deputy, Dr Solomon Julius, he was superintendent on duty for all the board’s hospitals. He was forced constantly to defend the Brisbane Hospital from criticism of overcrowding, especially in the years between 1946 and 1950. Concurrently he had to manage the junior salaried medical staff, who were working long hours and struggling under the immense demands placed on them.

Subject to political direction from above while clinically responsible for the hospitals’ medical staffs, Pye had become involved in two major conflicts early in his term. The BSCHB, subservient to successive Australian Labor Party governments (1915–29 and 1932–57) and the party’s platform of free hospital health care for all, sought essentially a full-time salaried hospital service. The British Medical Association and the powerful honorary visiting staff vehemently opposed the introduction of socialised medicine, which threatened the then standard model with its ethos of control by doctors. Pye was appointed at the peak of the turbulence and he inherited the professional and administrative challenge of implementing government policy while maintaining the hospitals’ service and preserving the morale of their staffs. He recommended that, for large hospitals (more than one hundred beds), there should be a salaried core of senior medical staff and a paid part-time cadre of visiting specialists. The specialists proposed a similar scheme and the system was introduced in 1938; then pioneering, it would become universal in Australia.

The second conflict that Pye helped to manage was Sister Elizabeth Kenny’s dispute with a majority of Queensland doctors over her methods of clinically managing acutely paralysed limbs. Her approach clashed with that of contemporary medical and nursing practice. Pye was impressed by the progress of patients in her ward at the Brisbane Hospital compared with those treated by conventional methods. He was one of six Queensland doctors who facilitated her government-funded travel in 1940 to the United States of America, where her methods could be tested with less controversy. By the 1960s her system was accepted as the standard nursing and physiotherapy treatment.

A fellow (from 1933) of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, Pye earned wide respect for his proficiency, particularly in emergency surgery. It was said that he was ‘the best man inside a hot belly in Queensland’ (A. Morton 2015). He taught basic surgical skills to the hospital’s resident medical officers, scores of whom later served as sole doctors in country hospitals. In World War II his clinical work increased, despite his heavy administrative load, and he was on call one night and one weekend in three for after-hours emergency surgery.

The (Royal) Brisbane Women’s Hospital (opened in March 1938) had been one of numerous major building projects initiated and completed during Pye’s term. Situated in the grounds of the Brisbane Hospital, it was an up-to-date obstetric hospital. The South Brisbane (Princess Alexandra) Hospital was established in 1956 with his help. In 1967 he oversaw the completion of the University of Queensland’s Clinical Sciences Building at the Brisbane Hospital. He was a friend of the Hospital for Sick Children (Brisbane Children’s Hospital) and fostered its building works. 

Influential in a number of important innovations in Queensland’s health care, in the 1930s Pye had introduced the first in-patient beds in public hospitals for psychiatric patients. In 1935 and 1936 he played a leading part in the decision to establish the University of Queensland’s faculty of medicine; he served on the faculty board from 1936 to 1967. With others, he promoted the foundation (1944) of the Queensland Radium Institute; he would be a member until 1967. Following the establishment (1945) of the Queensland Institute of Medical Research, he was appointed to its council (deputy chairman, 1947–67), again serving until 1967. He was created a fellow of the QIMR (1981) for his distinguished contributions to it and to medical science generally. Both ex officio and because of his personal qualities, he served on many other bodies, including the State Nutritional Advisory Board (from 1937) and the postgraduate education committee of the Queensland branch of the British (renamed Australian in 1961) Medical Association.

In 1953 an unnamed person, apparently a member of the University of Queensland’s medical faculty, had reported Pye to the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation for alleged communist sympathies. With Julius, a communist, he had written a paper for a 1941 congress in Brisbane on medical aid to the Soviet Union, then Australia’s wartime ally. Intensely loyal to his country, Pye repudiated Julius’s politics. An investigation by ASIO affirmed his innocence. The slur was a source of astonishment to him and his family.

Pye exerted firm authority through his strong presence and rare ability to combine clinical leadership and sound staff management. Another esteemed surgeon, Sir Clarence Leggett, later observed: ‘Aubrey had an absolute genius for picking the right man for the right clinical job’ (A. Morton 2015). It was said that he knew every staff member’s name in the Brisbane Hospital, and that he visited the wards every day. For his services to medicine and medical administration, he was appointed CBE (1965).

Retiring in 1967, Pye worked in the regimental aid post at Victoria Barracks and held office as vice-president of the Queensland Ambulance Transport Brigade. He enjoyed success in lawn bowls. His son, the surgeon James Cecil Pye (1934–1976), died from malignancy. Having sustained at least three coronaries over a thirty-year period, Aubrey Pye died on 16 June 1994 at Tarragindi, Brisbane, and was cremated, according to his wishes, without religious forms. His daughter, Elizabeth Morton, survived him. The family holds his portrait (1969) by Graeme Inson. Pye Gardens and the heritage-listed Pye House at the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital commemorate him.

Research edited by Darryl Bennet

Select Bibliography

  • Charlton, Peter. ‘Why Did ASIO See Red.’ Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 7 December 1991, 5
  • McGuire, L. I. ‘The Pye Era: 1931 to 1967.’ In History of the Division of Surgery Royal Brisbane Hospital, edited by Simon Siu, 37-81. Brisbane: Division of Surgery, Royal Brisbane Hospital, 2003
  • Morton, Dr Anthony Park. Interview by the author, 8 October 2015
  • Morton (née Pye), Elizabeth Finlayson. Interview by the author, 8 October 2015
  • National Archives of Australia. A6126, 806
  • Patrick, Ross. A History of Health and Medicine in Queensland 1824-1960. Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 1987
  • Pearn, John. Focus and Innovation: A History of Paediatric Education in Queensland. Brisbane: Amphion Press, 1986
  • Pearn, John. Symbols of Service: The Armorial Bearings, Symbols, Motifs, Badges and Medals of the Royal Children’s Hospital, Brisbane. Brisbane: Amphion Press, 2012
  • Personal knowledge of the ADB subject
  • Senior Year Book, Faculty of Medicine. Sydney: The Society, 1924
  • Tyrer, John H. History of the Brisbane Hospital and Its Affiliates: A Pilgrim’s Progress. Brisbane: Boolarong Publications, 1993

Additional Resources

Citation details

John H. Pearn, 'Pye, Aubrey David (1901–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/pye-aubrey-david-23860/text32726, published online 2018, accessed online 22 October 2019.

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