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Mayes, Bruce Toomba (1903–1996)

by Ian Cooke

This article was published online in 2020

Bruce Toomba Mayes (1903–1996), obstetrician, was born on 1 May 1903 at Toowoomba, Queensland, second of four surviving children of Scottish-born Alexander Mayes, builder and mayor of Toowoomba, and his New South Wales-born wife Helena Agnes, née Grieve. Educated at East Toowoomba State School and Toowoomba Grammar School, where he played cricket in the first XI, Bruce studied medicine at the University of Sydney (MB, BS, 1927), residing at St Andrew’s College. He won the John Harris (1925) and James Coutts (1927) scholarships, the Parkinson memorial prize (1925), and, jointly with W. L. Magill, a G. S. Caird scholarship (1926), and graduated with first-class honours and Professor Windeyer’s prize for obstetrics and clinical obstetrics. While at medical school, he asked his father to change his middle name from ‘Toowoomba,’ as he had suffered jibes about it as a schoolboy; as a compromise, it was shortened to ‘Toomba.’ He was a resident medical officer at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Camperdown (1927–28), and then at the Royal Hospital for Women, Paddington (1928–29).

Winning a Walter and Eliza Hall travelling medical research fellowship for 1929, Mayes worked with F. J. Browne at University College Hospital, London, and with Ludwig Seitz at the Universitäts-Frauenklinik, Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany, on a bioassay to test for human pregnancy. Mayes would later introduce this test into Australia. He obtained his fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh in 1931, and returned to Sydney. On 9 September that year he married Edna Cecilia Stone, a physiotherapist, at St Stephen’s Presbyterian Church. With no jobs available in Sydney in the Depression, he moved back to Queensland as resident medical officer at Boonah Hospital. After a year there he squatted in Brisbane in general practice, but soon set up as a specialist. He had an honorary appointment at the Brisbane Hospital and was senior clinical lecturer and senior visiting obstetrician at the Brisbane Women’s Hospital. In 1933 he became a fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, and in 1935 a member of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of London (RCOG)(fellow 1945).

Appointed to the chair of obstetrics at the University of Sydney in 1940, Mayes became a consultant at the Royal Hospital for Women and the Women’s Hospital, Crown Street, and extended the teaching capacity for medical students by consultancies at the newly opened King George V Memorial Hospital, Camperdown, and Royal North Shore Hospital, as well as later at St George and St Margaret’s hospitals. There was a heavy university as well as clinical teaching load, increased by the postwar influx of students.

In April 1939 Mayes had been appointed as a supernumerary captain in the Australian Army Medical Corps but in World War II he joined the Medical Branch of the Royal Australian Air Force. He served full time in Sydney from March 1942 as a flight lieutenant (acting squadron leader, 1943), at No. 2 Recruiting Centre for five months and then at No. 2 Training Group. At the request of the university, he was released in July 1943, transferring to the RAAF Reserve and continuing part time as a consultant. To prepare service doctors for general practice on demobilisation, he distributed a series of bulletins from 1944 to 1946, covering a range of obstetric topics; these were later published as Practical Obstetrics (1947). He published an undergraduate textbook, A Textbook of Obstetrics (1950), which was lucid and widely used, and also made teaching films. Invited by the RCOG in 1954 to be the Sims-Black travelling professor, he toured Britain and Ireland teaching obstetrics at thirty-one centres over five months, as well as presenting a William Blair-Bell memorial lecture.

Working with the medical practitioner Grace Cuthbert Browne and the New South Wales Department of Public Health, Mayes helped develop State surveys of maternal and perinatal mortality. In 1954, in honour of Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to Australia, public subscription raised money for a Coronation Gift Fund. Together with (Sir) Lorimer Dods, the professor of child health at the University of Sydney, Mayes successfully bid for the money. They established the Queen Elizabeth II Research Institute for Mothers and Infants (QERI), which was opened in 1958 by the Queen Mother; Mayes became its director.

From 1957 to 1959 Mayes was dean of the faculty of medicine. His department grew, and he fostered the careers of young researchers, including Rodney Shearman and Warren Jones. Ed Hon, from Yale University, spent a period at the university developing fetal heart monitoring by Doppler ultrasound, which was introduced clinically. Bevan Reid and Malcolm Coppleson developed cervical cytology. In 1964 Mayes succeeded in incorporating gynaecology into his subject. He remained director of QERI and professor of obstetrics and gynaecology until his retirement in 1968. After retiring, he was appointed emeritus professor, but continued in private practice.

Mayes was chairman of the Australian reference committee for the RCOG in 1946 and the next year played a key role in founding its Australian regional council (chairman, 1956–59). Appointed MVO fourth class in 1947 for his service as honorary surgeon to the Duchess of Gloucester, he received honorary fellowship of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners in 1968 and was appointed CMG in 1969. He became a foundation fellow (1978) of the Royal Australian College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology and was awarded an honorary doctorate of medicine from the University of Sydney in 1989. In 1987 he had published his autobiography, Babies for Ladies: My Sixty Years of Caring for Women.

Five feet nine inches (175 cm) tall and well built from boyhood sport, Mayes maintained studious habits from his student days. He was ‘a gentle man,’ always courteous and ‘of great intellectual integrity’ (Elliott 1997, 93). Raised as a Presbyterian, he espoused Christian principles, which were prominent in his writing. He was passionate about education, which he felt should not be confined to medicine. His emphasis was always on the clinical aspects of his subject and supportive interaction with patients. He died on 2 December 1996 at Elizabeth Bay and was cremated; his wife and their two daughters survived him. Commissioned from Clifton Pugh in 1968, his portrait was hung at QERI.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Elliott, Peter M. ‘Bruce Toomba Mayes.’ Medical Journal of Australia 167, no. 2 (21 July 1997): 93
  • Mayes, Bruce. Interview by Bronwyn Hughes, 1987. Transcript. NSW Bicentennial oral history collection. National Library of Australia
  • McDonald, Ian A., Ian Cope, and Frank M. C. Forster. Super Ardua: The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in Australia 19291979. Melbourne: Australian Council, Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, 1981
  • Mellor, Lise. ‘Mayes, Bruce Toomba.’ Faculty of Medicine Online Museum and Archive, University of Sydney. 2008. Accessed 19 February 2016. http://sydney.edu.au/medicine/museum/mwmuseum/index.php/Mayes,_Bruce_Toomba. Copy held on ADB file
  • National Archives of Australia. A9300, MAYES B T
  • Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (London). Australian Regional Council archive

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Citation details

Ian Cooke, 'Mayes, Bruce Toomba (1903–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mayes-bruce-toomba-25179/text33646, published online 2020, accessed online 6 March 2021.

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