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Trumble, Hugh Compson (1894–1962)

by J. S. Guest

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Hugh Compson Trumble (1894-1962), surgeon, was born on 29 May 1894 at Nhill, Victoria, fourth child of Australian-born parents John William Trumble, solicitor, and his wife Susan Compson, née Davies. John and his brother Hugh Trumble played Test cricket for Australia. The family moved to Brighton, Melbourne, where young Hugh attended Brighton Grammar School (dux 1911). His medical course at the University of Melbourne (M.B., B.S., 1916) was shortened because of World War I. Without undertaking a residency, he immediately applied for a commission in the Australian Imperial Force.

On 12 September 1916 Trumble was appointed captain, Australian Army Medical Corps, A.I.F. He served on the Western Front from April 1917, chiefly as medical officer of the 14th Battalion. Over three days and nights from 4 July 1918, at Vaire Wood, near Corbie, France, he worked in the open, treating casualties while under enemy fire. For this and earlier work, he was awarded the Military Cross. In February he had been gassed; in August he suffered a wound in the back. Following the Armistice, he and (Sir) Hugh Cairns travelled on the Continent. Cairns thought that Trumble was 'extraordinarily brainy in a practical way'. The two men were to remain lifelong friends. Trumble's A.I.F. appointment terminated in England on 7 June 1920. By then he had begun postgraduate work in London. In 1921 he qualified as a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, England.

Returning to Melbourne, Trumble was appointed to the staff of the Alfred Hospital in March 1922. That year he also joined the Austin Hospital, which treated patients with pulmonary and bone tuberculosis and other conditions considered incurable. He worked as a general surgeon, but his interests were wide and he was to make a considerable contribution to orthopaedics, thoracic surgery and the surgery of the autonomic nervous system. In 1924 he published a paper, 'The Treatment of Tuberculosis Abscesses'. At that time the accepted remedy was incision and drainage. This procedure inevitably led to a chronic sinus and long-term problems of management. Trumble advocated aspiration of the 'cold abscess' using a relatively small-bore needle into which was introduced a corkscrew-like spiral of fine wire which could be used to clear the needle of 'debris', so often the cause of blockages. He argued that patience was necessary because it could take an hour to empty a large collection, and that later aspirations would probably drain off the pus without trouble.

In 1926 and 1928 Trumble published papers on the treatment of tuberculosis of the spine. His 'Note on the Position of the Patient in the Performance of Thoracoplasty and certain other Operations' (1940) recommended that the patient be positioned with the healthy lung uppermost. He designed especially long rib-scrapers to make the operation feasible. A master in the use of plaster of Paris and the fabrication of beds and splints, he invented an ingenious 'saddle appliance' to relieve a lower limb from the strain of bearing weight. In the management of tuberculosis of the hip, he reasoned that it was unwise 'to resort to operative measures whilst the inflammatory process is still active'. Using an extra-articular bone graft, he devised a means of fixation of the hip. His procedure was widely adopted by orthopaedic surgeons, but not with his name attached to it.

Trumble grew increasingly dissatisfied with varying descriptions in anatomical texts and complained that 'the nomenclature of the anatomists is chaotic'. To rectify the problem, he dissected 'dogs, cats, guinea pigs, rabbits, opossums, monkeys, and human beings' over a long period and produced a number of papers illustrated by beautiful diagrams. The practical side of this work was seen in his papers (1937, 1947 and 1954) on the relief of pain in the legs of people suffering from peripheral vascular disease, on the control of cardiac pain and on sympathectomy in the treatment of high blood pressure.

At St John's Church of England, Toorak, on 17 December 1930 Trumble had married Uira Irwin Kathrine Pyatt Law. When his brother-in-law Leonard Cox established a neurology clinic at the Alfred in 1934, the need for a neurosurgeon was soon apparent. Trumble set up Australia's first neurosurgical unit at the hospital, and began a close and productive collaboration with Cox. He read the literature on operations, adapted procedures to his own style, and became remarkably skilful; he also invented a craniotome, and so involved himself in the new discipline that he dropped virtually all other professional activities. By 1939 special neurosurgical facilities were provided in a new block where his unit remained until his retirement. His appointment as neurosurgeon in 1946 merely formalized a role he had made his own.

To demonstrate his own techniques and to view the work of other surgeons, Trumble arranged to travel abroad in 1940, but the war in Europe made him turn back after he reached New Zealand. He took up additional duties as consultant neurosurgeon to the Australian Military Forces in Victoria. In this role, he had considerable influence on (Sir) Sydney Sunderland. The Society of Australasian Neurosurgeons (Neurosurgical Society of Australasia) was formed in 1940: Trumble was one of eight foundation members.

Few surgeons of the first half of the twentieth century could match Trumble's talents. He displayed breadth of knowledge, original thought in finding solutions to problems that confronted him, skill in inventing instruments or making appliances to suit his purpose, and masterly operative technique. In the theatre he was unhurried, but never wasted movement or moment. Many of his instruments were home-made and he had to be persuaded to have them electroplated. He had around him a devoted team of nurses and doctors. A number of the latter went on to be leaders in neurosurgery.

A brilliant but essentially shy man, Trumble avoided all forms of public recognition. He was very much an individual, enterprising and ingenious, but also self-willed and contrary. After retiring in 1954, he held interests in a farm and a pine plantation. The Alfred Hospital published The Collected Papers of Hugh Trumble in 1957. Inheriting his family's aptitude for ball games, he played tennis and golf well into his sixties. A cerebrovascular seizure crippled his right side in 1960. He died of myocardial infarction on 16 October 1962 in the Alfred and was cremated; his wife, and their son and daughter survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Lives of the Fellows of the Royal College of Surgeons of England 1952-1964 (Edinb, 1970)
  • A. M. Mitchell, The Hospital South of the Yarra (Melb, 1977)
  • Alfred Hospital: Faces and Places, vols 1, 2 (Melb, 1996, 1999)
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 1, 1963, p 406.

Citation details

J. S. Guest, 'Trumble, Hugh Compson (1894–1962)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/trumble-hugh-compson-11884/text21281, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 24 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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