Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Sir Hugh Berchmans Devine (1878–1959)

by John Horan

This article was published:

Sir Hugh Berchmans Devine (1878-1959), surgeon, was born on 13 May 1878 at Little River, Victoria, eldest son of John Devine, farmer, and his wife Mary Anne, née Gleeson, both born in Geelong. His family was Catholic and he was educated at St Patrick's College, Ballarat. After matriculation in 1894 he studied pharmacy and was employed by Henry Francis of Bourke Street, Melbourne; he was registered as a pharmacist on 10 January 1900.

In 1902 Devine began his medical studies and was resident at Queen's College, University of Melbourne. After a brilliant course he graduated in 1906, gaining the Beaney scholarship in surgery. He was resident medical officer at the (Royal) Melbourne Hospital and then acting superintendent. Influenced at this time by (Sir) Thomas Dunhill, whose brother he had known well, he joined the staff of the young St Vincent's Hospital. The high quality of work of Devine, Dunhill and their colleagues gave impetus to the hospital's growth and gained for it added status when it became affiliated with the University of Melbourne as a clinical school. Devine himself made important contributions to the development of St Vincent's both as a hospital and as a teaching school. He was for a time dean of the clinical school and eventually honorary consulting surgeon to the hospital.

On 26 July 1911 at St Patrick's Cathedral, Devine married Mary Josephine O'Donnell. Later that year he went abroad to study at the renowned Allgemeines Krankenhaus, Vienna. At this time the use of X-rays in clinical medicine was in its infancy and its development was a feature of the Viennese School. Devine was quick to realize its potential in the early accurate pre-operative diagnosis of disorders of the stomach and colon and this was a factor in directing his interest to surgery of these parts.

After further study in Britain and the United States of America Devine returned to Melbourne. In 1914 he obtained the degree of master of surgery of the University of Melbourne and quickly became involved in a rapidly growing private practice. Surgical distinction came to him soon and he was recognized by his colleagues as in the forefront of his specialty.

Devine was one of the original advocates for the formation of a surgical college and played a decisive role in the development from 1928 of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (originally the College of Surgeons of Australasia). He was founder, a foundation fellow, a member of council, and president in 1939-41. He was largely responsible for the newly formed college gaining from the Hogan government tenancy of the island of land in Spring Street on which its building stands. In 1928 he edited the first number of the journal of the college, the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Surgery. He continued as editor for eighteen months and then for the next twenty years chaired the editorial committee.

For ten years from 1936 Devine was first chairman of the executive committee of the Anti-Cancer Council of Victoria. He was knighted in 1936 and in 1945 was made an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of England. Other honorary fellowships were bestowed upon him by the Association of Surgeons of Great Britain and Ireland, the Royal Society of Medicine and its proctological section, the American College of Surgeons, the International College of Surgeons and the Greek Surgical Society.

His surgical repertoire included all the routine operations of the abdomen, neck and limbs, but he was at his best when operating in the confined space of the abdomen, especially the upper abdomen. His Surgery of the Alimentary Tract (1940) is a lasting record of his pre-eminence in this field. It contains almost 700 illustrations and, drawing as it did on his own surgical experience, is rich in original thought and method. The Surgery of the Colon and Rectum, which he wrote in collaboration with his son, was published in 1948. Throughout his career he contributed regularly to surgical periodicals, yet his ability to write in a more popular vein is shown by newspaper articles such as 'Good Doctoring for the People' (1945) and 'The Tragedy and Challenge of National Health' (1951).

In 1952 Devine became chairman of a committee to administer a sum of money left by Michael ('Jack') Holt of Mordialloc to St Vincent's Hospital for purposes of research. His part in the formation of the St Vincent's School of Medical Research and his choice of its founding director, Dr Pehr Edman, may yet be considered his most lasting memorial.

Vigorous, energetic and robust, Devine enjoyed many outdoor sports, particularly tennis, golf, shooting, fishing, and sailing his ocean-going yacht. He spent at least six weeks of the year at his seaside home at Flinders, where he also prepared and wrote his books. The death in 1955 of his son John, a prominent surgeon and author of The Rats of Tobruk, was a heavy blow. Sir Hugh Devine died on 18 July 1959 and was buried in Melbourne general cemetery. He was survived by his two daughters.

In 1965 the Hugh Devine chair of surgery was established in the University of Melbourne to commemorate his services as a distinguished surgeon at St Vincent's Hospital, where the professorial unit is located. In 1972 the council of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons approved a medal to be struck to honour and perpetuate his name, to signify the highest honour the college can bestow upon a fellow during his lifetime.

A portrait by William McInnes hangs in the College of Surgeons, Spring Street.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian and New Zealand Journal of Surgery, Aug 1959, p 1, 4
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 21 Nov 1959, p 777
  • Age (Melbourne) 10, 12, 13 Mar 1945, 20 July 1959
  • Royal Australasian College of Surgeons Archives (Melbourne)
  • St Vincent's Hospital Archives (Melbourne)
  • family papers (privately held).

Citation details

John Horan, 'Devine, Sir Hugh Berchmans (1878–1959)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 17 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


13 May, 1878
Little River, Victoria, Australia


18 July, 1959 (aged 81)

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.