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Biographical entry Trueta, Joseph (1897 - 1977)

Officier de la Legion d'Honneur; Commander, Order of Southern Cross, Brazil; FRCS by election 1954; LM Barcelona 1921; MD Barcelona 1922; MA Oxford 1943; Hon DSc 1943; Hon DSc Bogota; 1956; Hon FRCSC 1947; Hon DSc Buenos Aires 1950; Hon FRCPS Glas 1951.

28 October 1897
Barcelona, Spain
19 January 1977
General surgeon, Orthopaedic surgeon and Trauma surgeon


Joseph Trueta was born in Barcelona on 28 October 1897, the son of Dr Raphael Trueta and the great grandson of Antony Trueta, surgeon to General Lancaster's Army in the Franco-Prussian war of 1795. He became Licentiate in Medicine, University of Barcelona, in 1921, proceeding MD in 1922.

He worked on the junior surgical staff until 1928 when he was appointed assistant surgeon. In 1929, he became chief surgeon to the Caja de Provision y Socorro an organisation which treated 40,000 accidents a year. He was appointed, in 1933, Assistant Professor of Surgical Pathology in the University of Barcelona and in 1935, chief surgeon to the Hospital de la Santa Cruz y Sant Pau and Professor of Surgery. When civil war broke out in Spain in 1936, Barcelona was subjected to continuous air raids and Trueta led the management of air raid and battlefield casualties, developing a special interest in severe soft tissue and bone injuries. Trueta practised wide and thorough wound excision and immobilisation of the limb in plaster of Paris with the wound left open, obviating the need for frequent dressings. This greatly reduced the risk of tetanus and gas gangrene, because the wound edges and floor had a good blood supply and devitalised tissue had been removed. His skill and care saved many limbs that would otherwise have been amputated and undoubtedly, many lives were saved. His technique was not original. He made this quite clear in the preface to his book, The principles and practice of war surgery published in 1943 in which he acknowledged his 'great debt' to P L Friedrich and Winnett Orr and pointed out that his 'main contribution had been to combine several established principles'.

A man of liberal convictions, he realised that as the Nationalist armies approached Barcelona in the winter of 1938, it would be impossible for him to work with them and he decided to move himself and his family to England early in 1939. After a period in London, where he lectured on military traumatology and practical air raid precautions, he was invited to the Wingfield-Morris Hospital in Oxford where he was made adviser to the Ministry of Health. It was at G R Girdlestone's suggestion that he stayed in Oxford caring for battle casualties and training Allied surgeons in his methods. He was appointed surgeon in charge of the accident service at the Radcliffe Infirmary in 1942 and Nuffield Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery in 1949. He developed the Orthopaedic Centre at Headington with the financial help of Lord Nuffield.

He pursued his scientific and academic studies which by 1961 had resulted in more than 130 papers, monographs and books, including many on the growth and nutrition of bone. His experience in the management of severe injuries and of the crush syndrome led him to investigate the renal circulation, in collaboration with A E Barclay, a well known diagnostic radiologist then at the Nuffield Institute of Medical Research in Oxford. Their Studies of the renal circulation published in 1947 described original observations on previously unknown vascular shunts and had far-reaching clinical importance. His studies on the pathogenesis of osteomyelitis and on osteogenesis attracted visitors to Oxford from many parts of the world, and he was honoured by societies and universities in North and South America and Europe. He also published papers on medical history and, in 1946, a history of his native land, The spirit of Catalonia.

A tall, handsome, athletic man with a vivacious, friendly spirit and a ready wit, he and his wife, Amelia, and their three daughters made a welcome contribution to Oxford society. On reaching the professorial age limit in 1966, he retired and returned to Barcelona to continue working in the University there. Eighteen months before his death he presided in Barcelona at a meeting of the Girdlestone Society where many of his ex-pupils were present. A day of scientific papers was followed by a visit to the monastery at Mont Serrat and then a reception and dinner at which he rose to address the members of the Society at lam. The pupils were exhausted but the chief was in scintillating form.

Joseph Trueta was a gentleman, warmly regarded by his colleagues for his cultural and intellectual gifts and for his courtesy and integrity. His wife, Amelia, died in 1975 and Trueta died after a short illness on 19 January, 1977, survived by his daughters.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Brit med J 1977, 1, 389 with portrait; The Times 21 January 1977; Elwood, W J, and Tuxford, A F (Ed) 1984 Some Manchester doctors, Manchester University Press. pp. 126-130; Trueta, J Trueta: Surgeon in war and peace, Gollancz, 1980].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England