Jim Peters – Sportsman, Soldier, Surgeon


  • David Rowan Webb

    Associate Professor of Surgery
    1. University of Melbourne, Urologist Austin Health, Urologist RAAF (Sp.Reserve), Former Urologist Royal Melbourne Hospital, Colleague and friend of Justin Peters and The Peters Family
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Jim Peters, a country boy who excelled academically and in the sporting arena was a Victorian urological pioneer. His passion for teaching and belief in the development of Australasian urology resulted in the establishment of two of Melbourne's earliest Urology Units (which are now major academic University departments), the creation of a formal urological training program and the promotion of Australian urology within the International urological community.

On the strength of a Donovan Bursary, James Sturrock Peters “came up” to Newman College at the University of Melbourne in 1931, and completed his first year studies in commerce.

Commerce was a rather unorthodox beginning for a long and distinguished surgical career. Jim's financial successes later in life demonstrated that he did not need a formal education in economics anyway! He had enrolled in commerce with a view to working for the government's treasury department. However, at the height of the Great Depression it became clear that there was little future in economics.

Jim's grandfather had been a doctor in Scotland and his sister Sheila was studying medicine at the University of Melbourne. Sheila told Jim, “Medicine is easy”. He protested throughout his life that it wasn't! During his summer break, while jackarooing on his uncle's property near Holbrook, Jim studied Latin, which was still a prerequisite for medicine. It is hard to imagine a young jackaroo sitting in a wool shed reciting Latin declensions amongst the “rouseabouts”, but the gregarious Jim grew up on the land, and got on with everybody.

Jim came to Melbourne University from St Patrick's College, Ballarat where he had been, a scholarship boarder (1926 – 1930), with an extraordinary sporting record, particularly in Australian Rules football. As full-forward Jim kicked 141 goals in the 1930 championship side for which the school awarded him a personal gold medal- a unique acknowledgement from a school that has produced more Australian Football League players than any other.

In his freshman year at Melbourne University, Jim was awarded a Football Blue in intervarsity football and was later awarded an Australian University Blue. He played for the University Blacks in the Victorian Amateur Football Association and represented the State of Victoria with distinction from 1931 to 1935. He was Captain of the University Blacks (1934 -1935), when the team won the A grade Premiership in 1935. In the same year he was Captain of the Victorian state team that won the interstate carnival in New South Wales; he was made Captain of the All Australian Amateur side in 1935. He also found time to captain two other winning teams – the medical students in the inter-faculty competition (1935) and Melbourne University in the intervarsity competition (1935).

Jim revelled in college life representing Newman in football, cricket, and athletics. He was elected President of the Newman College Students Club in his final year (1937). In his last year of medicine, as Captain of Newman College, he kicked 18 goals against Queens College in an intercollegiate match. As an outstanding player of the 1930's, the Victorian Amateur Football Association in 2007 inducted him as the inaugural “Legend” of the game.

Graduating MB, BS (Honours) in 1937, Jim worked as resident medical officer and then registrar in 1938 and 1939 at St Vincent's Hospital Melbourne, where he had trained as a medical student.

At the outbreak of World War II, Jim followed his father's footsteps in “The Great War”, volunteering for military service. He departed in 1940 with the Second Field Ambulance, 6th Division AIF, to the Middle East, holding the rank of captain. In 1941 he was appointed DADMS (Deputy Assistant Director of Medical Services) to Major General Sir Leslie Morshead, Commander of the Australian 9th Division at Tobruk, Libya.

Tobruk was the largest Australian Army operation of WWII, and the scene of one of the defining battles of WWII, where the “all-conquering” German forces, led by Rommel, received their first “setback”. 3950 members of the 9th were lost. The members of the garrison defending Tobruk against the Afrika Corps became known as “The Rats of Tobruk”, and entered Australian military folklore.

After the battle of El Alamein (Egypt) in 1942, Jim was mentioned in despatches for his strong humanitarian stance on the provision of soldiers' hydration. Lt. Colonel Peters was demobilised in 1945. Jim's war service, and his passion for his fellow “Diggers” were to play a significant role in his surgical career.

Following the war Jim returned to Melbourne and completed his surgical residency at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. On the morning of the 6 April 1946, Jim and Moira O'Collins were married in the Newman College Chapel, University of Melbourne. That afternoon he was presented with his Master of Surgery during the Conferring of Degrees ceremony at the University, and the wedding reception was held that evening.

A week later Jim and Moira were on the boat to London! Jim became a General Surgical Officer at St James' Hospital, Balham. Here he worked with Dr Norman Tanner, and was coached and tutored for the FRCS exam, amongst others, by a great friend of visiting Australian surgeons, Sir Gordon Gordon-Taylor, affectionately known as “G squared T”! In May 1947, Jim obtained his FRCS (Fig. 1) and moved to Coventry Hospital to gain specialist Genito-Urinary experience.

Figure 1.

Portrait of Jim Peters wearing the Royal College of Surgeons Gown 1954.

Artist: Paul Fitzgerald AM (Permission Mrs Moira Peters).

He returned home via the United States where he undertook post-graduate terms at the Mayo and Cleveland Clinics. This American experience had a profound influence on Jim. American urologists pioneered endoscopic and advanced cancer surgery. Their urological training was ahead of that in Europe. The American centres had formal unit structures and specialist training programs.

Transurethral Resection of the Prostate (TURP) was an American innovation, championed by Reed Nesbitt in 1939. TURP was not routinely practised in the United Kingdom until the 1970's. Jim returned to become one of Melbourne's first three surgeons practicing TURP in the early 1950s. His student, David Ellis, recalls that Jim was “by far the best resectionist I have ever seen,” and a “patient and excellent teacher”.

In 1948 Jim became one of the first five Australians to be awarded the new specialist qualification, FRACS (Urology), being examined formally in urology and not just general surgery, as occurred previously. In 1949 Jim returned to his alma mater, St Vincent's working with Mr Henry Mortensen, head of Melbourne's second urology unit. Jim commenced private practice in 1950 in his own rooms on Collins Street, at that time the Melbourne equivalent of Harley Street in London.

His private practice continues 62 years later, still under the name of J S Peters. Jim's son, Justin Sturrock Peters returned from a two year urology fellowship in the USA in 1985 and joined his father in his rooms. Justin commenced his own practice, and took over Jim's open surgical cases and five years later his endoscopic surgery. Jim finally retired from consulting practice in 1996, aged 83. Justin still sees many of his father's old patients making it the longest continuing solo private urological practice in Australia.

Jim popularised the introduction of the Culp-de-Weerd Pyeloplasty in Australia, making a film of the procedure in 1954.

Although Jim's time at St Vincent's was exciting and formative, it soon became clear to him that the unit hierarchy and succession plan were already well established and that he was unlikely to have long term prospects there. Fortuitously, in 1953, a position became available at Prince Henry's Hospital. This inner Melbourne hospital began as the Melbourne Homeopathic Dispensary in 1869, became the Homeopathic Hospital, and in 1935, during a Royal Visit, its role and name changed to Prince Henry's, a conventional public hospital.

When Jim came to Prince Henry's there were urology units at St Vincent's and the Royal Melbourne Hospital, Jim formally established Melbourne's third urology unit at Prince Henry's in 1953. According to Bill Straffon, former Head of Prince Henry's Urology Unit, Jim liked to be known as “JSP” at Prince Henry's. He quickly established a formal unit structure, introduced TURP, and developed his passion for teaching.

Jim's practice was well known around Melbourne, as his consulting and operating lists became exceedingly busy. Bill Straffon remembers that “Jim's operating lists were far bigger in number and content than anyone else”, and “his patients had the highest regard for him as a doctor and a person”. In fact Jim had so many patients, that locums found it difficult to cope with the load during his absences.

Ellis commented “Jim was always on the move, very busy” and “he did not like waiting”. On more than one occasion, an anaesthetist who arrived late for his list discovered that Jim was already underway with the operation, having put in the spinal anaesthetic himself!

He tutored medical students at his home in Orrong Road, and conducted extremely popular Grand Rounds. Ellis recalls these rounds: “he was an enthusiastic teacher, and patients loved him”, and in theatre “he was a hard task master, with superb tissue handling skills”.

In post-War Melbourne, urologists were few, service was all important, and contemporary academic surgery was unknown. They all had extensive private practices, Jim performed three operating lists a week at Mt St Evins (rebuilt as St Vincent's Private in the 1970's), and further lists at Freemasons, Mercy, Sacred Heart, and Prince Henry's Private.

Public hospital consultants were honorary. They received no payment for their clinical and teaching commitments, but their positions were associated with prestige and respect.

In 1957 Jim became the first visiting urologist to the Repatriation Hospital in Heidelberg. Ellis says this was “the job Jim loved the most, he felt very at home with the Diggers and the Diggers loved Jim”. “The Repat” was a decommissioned Army and RAAF military hospital. It was run by the Victorian Government Veterans' Department for returned soldiers, war widows, and their families. Many of the nursing staff were ex-service women and men who naturally empathised with the “returned” surgeon.

The Hospital was a collection of WW2 huts connected by duckboard walkways, with a central pavilion. Throughout his life, like most veterans Jim rarely spoke of his military experiences. One can't help imagining that his visits to Heidelberg were mutually cathartic – to both the surgeon and patients. Until 1975, Jim drove the 20 kilometres to “Repat” twice a week. He was joined by Ian Nunn and Harold Story. Jim founded, the “Repat” Urology Department in 1957, Melbourne's fifth. He established the first Australian urology training post at the “Repat” in 1968, assisted by Ian and Harold. This post subsequently became the first accredited urology training post of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons in Victoria.

David Ellis, the first Australian trainee, recalls that there was significant opposition at the Repat to creating a training post in urology, as the general surgeons wished to expand their empire. He says it was the respect for Jim within the hospital and the Veterans' Department that won the day: “Jim was the powerhouse behind establishing urology training at the Repat”.

In 1956 the W.H.O. sponsored a young Thai urologist, Dr Sampson Tantinongse, for urological training under Jim. He and Moira looked after him at their home while he was in Melbourne. Dr “S.T.” was the first of several overseas trainees in the '50s and early '60s.

By the time Jim retired from Prince Henry's and the Repat in 1975, he had founded two of Melbourne's first five urology units. Prince Henry's unit amalgamated with the Queen Victoria Hospital's, to become the Urology Department of Monash Medical Centre, the first purpose-built university hospital in Victoria. The Repat Unit amalgamated with the Austin Hospital within the University of Melbourne, and is now the largest urology unit in Australia, with an internationally acclaimed academic output. In recognition of Jim, Austin Health's Urology Department Senior Researcher is titled the “Jim Peters Research Fellow”.

In 1961–1962, Jim served as the President of the Urological Society of Australasia (USA). He undertook this post and his honour as Adjunct Australian Delegate to the Societie International Urology (1967–1973) with pride. He was also a member of the editorial committees of the British and Italian Journals of Urology. He was committed to the advancement of Australian urology overseas, and succeeded in attracting international names to Australia.

Between 1955 and 1985 Jim and Moira attended 29 International meetings, on five continents, visiting over twenty countries. Social highlights of the conferences included meeting the President of Brazil and the astronaut Yuri Gagarin. Bill Straffon remembers that Jim had a “very good standing in the international community”, and Ellis goes so far as to state, “He was the best known Australian urologist overseas”. Jim's list of acquaintances read like an international urological “Who's Who.” To name just a few: Goodwin, Hinman, Ritchie, Millar, Flocks. Straffon, Whitmore, Marbergers (Senior and Junior), Blandy, Pyrah, Turner-Warwick, J. P. Williams and Politano.

Many International colleagues stayed with Jim and Moira at their Melbourne home and at their farm near Kilmore, Victoria. They took the visitors to the racetrack for the Spring Racing Carnival including the Melbourne Cup, and on some occasions to meetings when Jim's horses were running. His favourite horse, “Penny Edition”, won many races, giving Jim a great sense of pride and satisfaction. He said the horse helped pay school fees for many years! Golfers enjoyed a round at the Metropolitan Golf Club, where Jim played initially off a handicap of five. These generous acts led to long-lasting friendships and the international promotion of Australasian urology.

Jim was never bored following his retirement in 1996, aged 83. He now had more time to indulge his love of the land, business, travel, and family. A “country boy” Jim was a “hands on farmer”, driving a tractor into his 90s, and with Moira ran an Angus cattle farm.

Jim's trainees recall him with fondness, Bob Leggett, Head of Urology at the Geelong Hospital wrote: a “wonderful teacher, he made urology a distinct speciality in Victoria, I remember him with affection”. Bob tells the story of looking after Jim's patients on a weekend. A catheter was removed one Saturday morning. The patient went into clot retention and Jim was called from the golf course to rescue the situation. “Now Bob” said Jim. “You have learned a valuable lesson today. Never take a catheter out at a weekend!” Bob recounted this story 40 years later to a Victorian section meeting, and Bob never again took a catheter out on a weekend.

Bill Straffon states: “Jim influenced my career significantly, he was popular with staff, other urologists and, most of all, his patients who worshipped him.” David Ellis remarked: “He made Australian urology significant”.

Jim had a different opinion of his greatest achievement. He said: “Moira was the best thing that ever happened to me.”. On this, all his colleagues agree. Jim was the modest, gregarious product of a country upbringing by his peripatetic parents during the Great Depression. Along with St Patrick's College, they instilled in Jim the discipline of hard work, moral and religious principles, and a belief in Australian ability. He was naturally gifted, both technically and socially, and a born leader in sport and life. It was his passion and talent for teaching, his parents' family trait, that determined his ultimate contribution to Australian urology.

Jim, in his self deprecating and modest manner, would often “apologise” (that in his opinion) “he was never an academic”. Academic surgery as we know it did not exist in the pioneering days of the '50s and '60s. However, his fledgling units have grown into prestigious university departments at Melbourne and Monash Universities, with prodigious research, publications, and international academic reputations.

It is no surprise that his passion for learning extended to his own family as well. All of Jim and Moira's eight children are university graduates, two medical, and both of them followed in his footsteps at St Vincent's and the Royal Melbourne Hospitals. Marion is Professor of Medicine and Chief of Hepatology Research at UCSF, and Justin is Consultant Urologist to the Royal Melbourne Hospital.

Jim's skilful and farseeing commitment to the training in and practice of urology has left a lasting and flourishing legacy in Australia and beyond.


Mrs Moira Peters and family.

Conflict of Interest

None declared.