The history of surgical teaching at the University of Sydney

Anderson Stewart Building c1900 courtesy of University of Sydney Archive

The first medical students entered the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Sydney in 1883.  At this time, Thomas Peter Anderson Stuart (1856–1920), a 26-year-old recent graduate of the University of Edinburgh, was appointed Professor of Anatomy and Physiology and charged with organising the surgical teaching program.  As it is today, surgery was a rapidly changing speciality. In particular new techniques such as anaesthesia and antisepsis were in the process of transforming clinical practice. Professor Stewart recalled of his time in Edinburgh:

“I recognised the value of Lister’s teaching, and did as much as I could with him… I had an opportunity of working under the old surgery, and yet observing the new… I remember Mr Spence in an old grey operation coat, which he had used for years, and which was stiff with coagulated blood, and other discharges, so that if you placed it on the floor it stood erect by itself…” (Epps, 1922; Brown, 2016)

Brown and Storey (2016) give a fascinating account of the changes in surgical teaching that have taken place at the university since the introduction of anaesthesia and antisepsis.

Fortunately, the days of  ‘those great master surgeons who could disarticulate at the hip joint and remove the lower limb in three‐quarters of a minute’ — have gone. We are to be thankful to have been born at a time when technology as done so much to prevent the suffering of the patients we care for.

  • Brown, Kilian G. M., and Catherine E. Storey. 2016. “Acquiring Surgical Skills: The History of Surgical Teaching at the University of Sydney 1883–2014.” ANZ Journal of Surgery 86 (6): 448–53. https://anzjsurg.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/ans.13469.
  • Epps W. Anderson Stuart, M.D. Physiologist, Teacher, Builder, Organizer, Citizen. Sydney: Angus & Robertson Ltd, 1922.
  • Lister, Joseph. 1867. “On the Antiseptic Principle in the Practice of Surgery.” The Lancet 90 (2299): 353–56. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(02)51827-4.
  • Pitt, Dennis, and Jean-Michel Aubin. 2012. “Joseph Lister: Father of Modern Surgery.” Canadian Journal of Surgery. Journal Canadien de Chirurgie 55 (5): E8–9. https://doi.org/10.1503/cjs.007112.

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