Journal of the New Zealand Medical Association, 13-December-2002, Vol 115 No 1167
C Bruce Cornish
Bruce Cornish was born in Wellington, the second son in a family of three boys and one girl. He attended Wellington College, where he was boxing champion, cricketer, rugby player and head prefect. At Otago Medical School, he obtained a New Zealand University boxing blue in 1940, while still in his preclinical years. His boxing career was terminated and his medical studies interrupted while he spent two years recovering from TB.
By the time of his graduation, Bruce was committed to a career in surgery. As soon as he had saved enough money, he travelled to Britain as a ship’s doctor, and there obtained a series of low-paid surgical house jobs.
Meanwhile, Jetta Trotter, whom he had met while a house surgeon, had completed a degree and research in Dunedin, travelled to London, and obtained a well-paid job and a comfortable flat with other New Zealand girls.
Bruce and Jetta met again when Jetta was bridesmaid at a wedding of New Zealanders in London. Courtship followed. Shortly before starting a live-in house job at Hammersmith, Bruce proposed to Jetta and three weeks later they were married. Randal Elliott was best man.
Bruce and Jetta saw very little of each other during the next year. Bruce lived and worked at Hammersmith, where he was house surgeon for Ian Aird. At Hammersmith, Bruce obtained his general surgical fellowship and developed an interest in head and neck surgery.
Subsequently, he trained at the Royal National Throat, Nose and Ear Hospital. He developed expertise both in head and neck surgery and the newly evolving microsurgery of the ear. He obtained the Diploma of Laryngology and Otology.
Bruce and Jetta finally commenced their life of married bliss in a bomb-blitzed flat with leaking gas pipes, from which they really enjoyed a London lifestyle. In 1954, Bruce returned to New Zealand as a ship’s doctor. His most troublesome patient was a very seasick and very pregnant Jetta.
After a short but happy stay in Palmerston North, Bruce and Jetta shifted to Auckland, so that Bruce could develop his interest in head and neck surgery. In 1955, Bruce joined Pat Moore at Green Lane Hospital and subsequently also in private practice –first in Symond Street, and from 1964 at 139 Remuera Road, where together they founded what became the Dilworth Clinic.
At Green Lane, there was initial resistance to an ear, nose and throat surgeon performing laryngeal surgery. Together with David Cole, Bruce carried out the first operation in New Zealand to restore voice to a patient who had previously had a total laryngectomy. Bruce encouraged, and got great satisfaction from watching, younger colleagues develop sophisticated operations for head and neck problems.
At 139 Remuera Road, he and Pat Moore were joined by Michael Gilmour and Brian Barratt-Boyes. Bruce was fascinated by the success of homograft heart valves. He saw discarded cusps as perfect material for repairing large perforations in eardrums. He carried out successful surgical experiments in sheep. The results were monitored histologically. With help from colleagues in other disciplines, he set up serological studies to find out what happened when homografts were used to repair eardrums. He developed surgical techniques of his own to achieve high success rates. In such early days of microsurgery of the ear, this was groundbreaking stuff. In 1967, he attended by invitation the four-yearly British academic conference in otolaryngology, and presented his work to the entire conference. He subsequently demonstrated his techniques in a workshop packed with admiring colleagues.
Accompanied by Jetta, Bruce made repeated trips to Samoa and Tonga to deal with chronic ear disease. He realised he was only scratching the surface. He arranged for a Samoan doctor to be brought to New Zealand for training, and for New Zealand Rotary clubs to provide a microscope and instruments for that doctor to use when he returned, fully trained, to Samoa. In Tonga, Bruce taught nuns to clean ears with a microscope. He arranged for equipment to be donated from New Zealand.
After returning to New Zealand from Britain, Bruce had obtained the Australasian Fellowship by examination. Later, he himself became an examiner. He was admired for fairness and thoroughness. He put an immense amount of time into preparing for each examination.
In 1969, he was co-organiser in Rotorua of the first combined meeting of the Australian and New Zealand ENT societies. Bruce ran the academic programme and in doing so set new standards for both countries. Bruce subsequently became President of the New Zealand Society of Otolaryngology.
Bruce has been mentor and friend to two generations of young ENT trainees and surgeons. He has been a caring and innovative doctor to countless patients and he has been respected and loved by nurses, secretaries, audiologists and anyone else who has had the privilege to work with him. Even when near retirement, he accompanied younger colleagues on courses and gave them encouragement.
Bruce loved his cottage at Hikuai and his gardening. Bruce and Jetta have repeatedly opened their garden to the Trinity Garden Show amongst others. It has also appeared on “Maggie’s Garden Show” on television.
Bruce was a fine doctor, an innovator, a teacher, examiner, colleague and friend. He regularly said how glad he was he had done medicine, and what a privilege it had been to be part of the medical profession and to be able to care for patients. However, it was always very clear to colleagues that his first love and priority was Jetta and their family. His commitment, love and devotion to family have been a real example and inspiration to younger colleagues and helped to make him such a good doctor.
Six months before his death, Bruce and Jetta celebrated their 51st wedding anniversary. Six days before his death, he celebrated his 82nd birthday. All his family had the opportunity to be with him. The day he died he remained fully lucid and concerned not for himself but for the welfare of Jetta and his family, and also of his colleagues. He knew that his pride in his family was fully justified. He was happy but he was tired, and he wanted to go. He is survived by Jetta, his daughter Katharine, his three sons Robert, Randal and Philip, and many doting grandchildren.
We are grateful to Dr Ronald Goodey for this obituary
This file was updated on 23 December to correct an error. Dr Cornish's third son is named Philip, not Stephen, as previously published. We apologise to Dr Cornish's family for our mistake.
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