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Biographical entry Pheils, Murray Theodore (1917 - 2006)

MRCS 1941; FRCS 1947; MB BCh Cambridge 1941; MChir 1950; MD Sydney; LRCP 1941; FRACS; FACS.

2 December 1917
Birmingham, UK
19 December 2006
General surgeon


Murray Pheils was professor of surgery at the University of Sydney. He was born in Birmingham on 2 December 1917, the younger of the two sons of Elmer Theodore Pheils, an osteopath, and Lilian Mary née Cole. His father Elmer was a colourful character: he was born in Toledo, Ohio, and trained as an osteopath under George Still, the founder of that profession, subsequently qualifying in medicine from Ohio. He went to London in 1907, and soon built up a successful practice, including among his patients George Bernard Shaw and Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother), who he cured of torticollis by massage. Despite early hostility, he was widely accepted by regular members of the profession, and insisted that both his sons went to medical school. Murray was seven when Shaw became his father’s patient and soon got to know the great man well, describing their friendship in ‘Thank you Mr Shaw’ (Brit med J 1994 309 1724-1726).

Murray Pheils was educated at Leighton Park School and followed his elder brother to Queens’ College, Cambridge, before going on to St Thomas’ Hospital for his clinical training. There he was influenced by B C Maybury, B W Williams, R H O B Robinson and T W Mimpriss.

After qualifying, he was house surgeon and casualty officer at St Thomas’ and St Peter’s, Chertsey, before joining the RAMC in 1942. There he served in Africa and in the South East Asia Command and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel.

Whilst still on the house at St Thomas’ he married Unity Louise McCaughey, who came from a family long established in New South Wales. Her grandfather Sir Samuel McCaughey had set up the Murrumbidgee irrigation scheme which transformed agriculture in New South Wales.

After the war, Murray obtained an ex-serviceman’s registrar post at St Thomas’ and then held further general surgery and urology posts at St Thomas’ and St Peter’s. In 1951 he was appointed as a consultant at St Peter’s, having obtained his Cambridge MChir. He became a very successful surgeon with a lucrative private practice, particularly after the Nuffield Private Hospital was built and opened. However, as the years passed Murray became restive – he had always wanted a teaching hospital post but, because of his late arrival back from the Far East after the war and, by that stage, having three young mouths to feed and educate, he had to take the post at Chertsey.

Following a trip out to Australia in 1965, Murray had renewed his friendship with John Lowenthal, who was chairman of the Sydney University department of surgery. He was informed that there was to be a teaching department established at the Repatriation Hospital at Concord and they were looking for a mature surgeon to run the new teaching department. Murray returned to the UK, saw the post advertised, applied and was appointed to start in mid 1966.

He rapidly made his mark not only as a clinician but also as a teacher. Casualties were being received from the Australian Forces in Vietnam. The condition of the evacuees was very poor and the whole process needed urgent attention as preventable deaths were all too common. Murray went to the Army hospital at Ingleburn and triaged the evacuees so they were transferred to an appropriate hospital for treatment. Furthermore, surgical teams of senior registrars and junior consultants were sent to Vietnam to improve the standard of care. With the backing of his colleagues, Murray was instrumental in transforming the management of the Australian Vietnam War casualties. His Second World War experience was invaluable in this respect.

He became a full professor in 1973 and chairman of the university department in 1979. As the Concord department grew and evolved (the hospital became an acute hospital), so Murray’s department developed a special interest in bowel cancer. He published extensively on colorectal cancer, as well as writing a landmark paper on ischaemic colitis with Adrian Marston and others. He also published on abdominal actinomycosis, vesicocolic fistula and cholecystitis. He set up the section of colon and rectal surgery at the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons and endowed the Murray and Unity Pheils travel fellowship.

Until he was over 80 he had a medico-legal practice in Sydney. He was a consultant to the New South Wales Law Reform Commission on informed decisions about medical procedures. He continued his interest in the Army, as a colonel in the RAAMC and as a consultant surgeon to the Australian Army.

Outside surgery, he had a keen interest in his family and that of his wife, and wrote The Return to Coree: the rise and fall of a pastoral dynasty (St Leonards, New South Wales, Allen & Unwin, 1998). He died on 19 December 2006, leaving his wife, Unity, two sons (Michael Murray and Peter John) and two daughters (Diana and Johanna). Peter John Pheils is a consultant surgeon in Broadstairs, Kent.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Information from Peter Pheils].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England