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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Maitland, Sir Herbert Lethington (1868–1923)

by Ann M. Mitchell

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Sir Herbert Lethington Maitland (1868-1923), surgeon and sportsman, was born on 12 November 1868 at Surry Hills, Sydney, son of London-born Duncan Mearns Maitland, civil engineer, and his native-born wife Emily, née Dalgety. Educated at Newington College and the University of Sydney (M.B., Ch.M., 1892), young Bert was more distinguished for athletic than academic achievements. His professional life focused on Sydney Hospital where he was resident medical officer in 1892 and senior R.M.O. next year. In 1894 he left to begin private practice in Elizabeth Street but in December 1895 was appointed honorary assistant surgeon. On 8 July 1897 at Marrickville he married Mabel Agnes Cook (d.1950). He lived and worked at 6 Lyons Terrace and about 1914 moved to a house he renovated at 147 Macquarie Street.

Maitland matured quickly at surgery of the head and neck for which he became famous. At Sydney Hospital he worked with W. H. Goode, then past his prime. Within four months of appointment, Maitland performed a rhinoplasty (nose reconstruction) which was rare enough to warrant presentation to his peers; the patient's family believed they had witnessed a miracle. By the time he was appointed to the senior staff in December 1902 his practice was almost entirely surgical. He lectured to Sydney Hospital nurses in 1900-09, and was an early medical member of the Australasian Trained Nurses' Association from 1899 and on its first board of examiners (1906-08). He was first lecturer in clinical surgery when Sydney Hospital became a clinical school of the university in 1909. Students and young doctors were attracted to the hospital for the sole reason that Maitland was there. He and his colleague Robert Steer Bowker operated in the very large main theatre at the same time on Thursday afternoons. Their rivalry was exhilarating for visitors but a strain for staff responsible for the smooth flow of patients. Maitland preached the gospel of hard work and not uncommonly continued an operating session far into the night. His generosity to the sick poor was proverbial.

Maitland did not have much time for writing, but his several articles in the Australasian Medical Gazette between 1898 and 1912 were distinguished, as were his lectures, by their clarity and common sense. One of these, 'A radical method of extirpating malignant growths in the neck secondary to mouth carcinoma' (20 October 1906), was noticed in J. F. Binnie's Manual of Operative Surgery. Maitland later contributed to a collection of papers on specialist surgery edited by Binnie and published in Philadelphia in 1917. He was honorary secretary of the Medical Benevolent Association of New South Wales almost continuously in 1900-23; a councillor of the local branch of the British Medical Association in 1904-16 and president in 1911-12; a consultant surgeon at the Women's Hospital, Crown Street, from 1905; at South Sydney Women's Hospital from 1915 and at the Coast (Prince Henry) Hospital from about 1914.

A confidant of politicians including James McGowen, he was knighted in 1915. In 1915-19 Maitland was on the active list of the Australian Army Medical Corps as surgeon and temporary lieutenant-colonel at the 4th Australian General Hospital, Randwick. Here he applied his talents to over one thousand repair, grafting and plastic operations with a 'skill and quickness so phenomenal that he would frequently complete as many as fifteen in a single morning'.

In 1916 Maitland's obligations to Sydney Hospital were increased at 'considerable personal sacrifice' when he became a director and was put on the house committee. His influence was soon apparent. Among other things he initiated improvements in business procedures, waged a vigorous campaign to obtain better facilities for patients, and promoted the interests of medical students. At his suggestion a lecture hall was built on the flat roof of the Renwick Pavilion in 1920. The board named it after him.

'Handsome Bertie' had a 'mobile face lit with dark eyes which his enthusiasms kindled like live coals'. He was of medium height, gap toothed, prematurely grey, good humoured, gregarious, charming, kindly, immensely popular—and much given to smoking and swearing. He had been a member of the Newtown Rugby Union team in 1888 and from the mid-1890s boxed regularly at the Sydney Amateur Gymnastic Club. When his friend Hugh D. McIntosh opened the Rushcutters Bay Stadium in 1908, Maitland was honorary surgeon. To the end he was renowned for his impromptu demonstrations of floor exercises and 'the best bloody biceps of the lot'. He also swam daily, played cricket, was a good shot and keen fisherman with his own boat, the Idler. He was president of the New South Wales Anglers Casting Club and winner of competitions in fly-casting and big-game fishing. He was a Freemason and member of the Australian Club. Well-known in theatre circles, he was a friend of the entrepreneur Hugh Ward. Sporting men reputedly named their houses after him and one named a horse Sir Maitland, which did quite well at Randwick.

Maitland was visibly aged by the heavy work of the war years and a bout of influenza during the 1919 pandemic. Late on the afternoon of 23 May 1923, feeling unwell, he rested in his rooms and died of coronary vascular disease. Hundreds of doctors, medical students and nurses, and scores of citizens processed from his home to Queen Victoria's statue near St James' Church. He was buried with Anglican rites in Waverley cemetery near his youngest son who had died of influenza in 1910. He was survived by his wife and two sons who were still medical students. His estate, valued for probate at £61,209, was left to his wife.

Sydney Hospital launched an over-ambitious memorial fund and the Maitland Theatre Suite was completed in 1930. The hospital's medical alumni also established the Maitland oration in 1935 which is still given at irregular intervals. Perhaps the memorial that would have pleased him most was the Sir Herbert Maitland Stakes, a weight-for-age event at the Victoria Park Racing Club, whose president was another Sydney Hospital director, Sir Joynton Smith. The hospital holds a cartoon by Lionel Lindsay and a posthumous portrait by John Longstaff was presented to the National Art Gallery of New South Wales by Lady Maitland in 1944. That year she married Sir Frederick Edward French.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Garenne, L'amour Vainqueur Poesies (Paris, 1957)
  • Sydney Hospital, Annual Report, 1891-1923
  • Royal South Sydney Hospital, Annual Report, 1915, 1923
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 8 Apr 1916, 23 June 1923, 1 Dec 1928
  • Sydney University Medical Journal, 12, no 2, Oct 1917, p 128
  • Australian Bystander, 21 June 1923
  • Sydney Mail, 23 June 1888, 4 Dec 1907, 30 May 1923
  • Sun (Sydney), 24, 25 May 1923
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 26 May 1923
  • Referee (Sydney), 30 May 1923
  • Smith's Weekly (Sydney), 2, 16 June 1923
  • Australasian Trained Nurses' Association, Council minute books, 1899-1923 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Sydney Hospital House Committee Minutes, 13 Mar 1916, 20 Oct 1919, 8, 22 Mar 1920
  • Sydney Hospital Board minutes, 21 Sept 1920, 28 Feb 1921
  • Maitland papers (Royal Australasian College of Physicians, Sydney and State Library of New South Wales)
  • Maitland family Bible (Royal Australian Historical Society, Sydney)
  • private information.

Citation details

Ann M. Mitchell, 'Maitland, Sir Herbert Lethington (1868–1923)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 22 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

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