By Supplied - Otago Daily Times | Posted: Thursday March 5, 2020
Bruce Turnbull personified the traditional southern man, with a love of the great outdoors, dogs, hunting and fishing.
But the passionate dermatologist, who died in Dunedin on January 25, aged 92, could cut as fine a figure in suit or white coat as in his hunter and fishing gear.
Whatever hat he was wearing, the dominant memory of Bruce for friends, patients, colleagues and others he met was of the consummate gentleman, whose kindness, words of encouragement and good humour were ever-present during a lifetime full of community and professional contributions to Dunedin and Central Otago.
The road to southern manhood started early. Bruce was born at home in London St, Dunedin, on a Black Friday in October 1027 to Eric and Edie. His father had turned to rabbiting to make a living after his return from World War 1 and inspired the young Bruce, who proudly shot his first rabbit at the age of 6 and owned his first shotgun at 9.
From his mother, Edie a schoolteacher at East Taieri, Bruce and older sister Edith had a Methodist upbringing, imbued with thrift and self-sufficiency, but also generosity. Everything that was shot was cooked and eaten or given away.
Attending Arthur Street School, then Otago Boys’ High School, he was nicknamed “Ginger” after his shock of red hair. His reputation was as a larrikin who enjoyed the odd prank and stealing boater hats from the Christ’s College boys after winning a game of rugby. While still at Otago Boys’, his attempt to join the air force was thwarted when the enlistment office guessed his real age, but in the late 1950’s he finally fulfilled his dream of learning to fly by becoming a medical officer with the RNZAF at Taieri, rabbit spotting from the air as he flew Tiger Moths and later Harvards.
The Inspiration to study medicine came from a cousin Denholm Cuddie, who lived with the family while at Otago Medical School. Bruce entered medicine in 1947. He valued hands-on teaching, especially in anatomy, to which he credited later success in his specialist exams.
Bruce owed another debt to the Otago Medical School. In 1952, he was rowing hard across Lake Waihola to retrieve a duck he had shot from his mai mai when he felt “someone had swiped me across the back of the head with an oar”. He quickly realized the significance of this symptom, counting it “the best diagnosis I ever made”. He had suffered a sub-arachnoid haemorrhage and underwent surgery to repair a cerebral artery aneurysm.
Contrary to advice from senior physician Sir Horace Smirk to stay at home and rest for six weeks, he sneaked into lectures and graduated MBChB the next year. The prominent scar on his forehead was a persistent reminder of how New Zealand might have lost him, but for neurosurgery having been established in Dunedin in 1943.
Bruce’s medical career spanned general practice and anesthetics before he trained in dermatology in the UK, then returned to Dunedin and played a significant role in the formation of the Australasian College of Dermatology from the 1960’s.
The story began in 1955, when as a young house officer, Bruce was able to convince a nurse, Pam Bradley, with whom he had fallen in love while working at the Cook Hospital in Gisborne, to “come south”. What followed was a long partnership in marriage, from August 27 1955 and medicine.
As well as a general practice at Pine Hill, Bruce was a visiting anaesthetist to Dunedin Hospital from 1956, successfully using hypnotherapy for a full dental extraction in a woman allergic to anaesthetic drugs.
The year 1959 was marked by the largest flu epidemic since 1919 with upwards of 100 patients a day. All the while, home visits, up to 20 per day, were routine, but on the way home there was often a stop off at Prospect Park to shoot a few rabbits for family consumption. After considering specialising in both anesthetics and forensic pathology, Bruce settled on dermatology for which he could see a pressing need.
Between 1956 and 1959, Ruth and Helen were born and in 1962 the family set off for London, Bruce working as the ship’s doctor to pay their passage.
After studying at St John’s Hospital for Diseases of the Skin, he was offered a position at Dundee Royal Infirmary, in Scotland, where he was exposed to a diverse array of dermatological conditions associated with the industries of ship-building, coal-mining, fishing and farming.
His passion for shooting and fishing opened doors in Scotland, perhaps too many, as Pam famously once said “Don’t bring another pheasant home!” The family returned to New Zealand in 1966 and a third daughter, Fiona was born.
During his 40-year career in dermatology, Bruce was a founding member of the Australasian College of Dermatologists, advocating strongly for training positions in New Zealand. At the request of Foreign Affairs, he visited Tonga, Niue and the Cook Islands, enjoying the challenge of diagnosing conditions uncommon in New Zealand and seeing the results of effective treatment.
His standing was such that he was offered a consultant position at the prestigious Mayo Clinic in the US in the 1980’s. But he remained loyal to his roots practicing in Dunedin and Central Otago and continuing to shoot and fish on regular trips – his daughter Fiona seemingly the only child at primary school who regularly had swan sandwiches for lunch.
Although “retired” from fulltime work in 1995, Bruce was in demand for locums by dermatologists throughout Australia and New Zealand and worked in this capacity until his 80th birthday in 2007. He was honoured as a founding member of the college’s 50th anniversary in Sydney in 2017.
In the wider Dunedin community, Bruce had leadership roles in both the Rotary Club and the Automobile Association. He was a strong voice and advocate for cleaner waterways while serving on the Otago Fish and Game Council and the Acclimatisation Society. He was a keen RSA Choir member and loved singing the Welsh and Scottish tunes that reminded him of the UK.
In 2014, he and Pam moved permanently to Wanaka, where they had holidayed since 1972. Sadly, Pam died suddenly in 2016, only months after their 60th wedding anniversary. Although vision problems meant Bruce had to sell his guns and fishing gear, he continued living in his own home with his beloved golden Labrador Ellie, making his own bread and being “bossed around” by his three daughters until his death after a short illness.
In keeping with his personal philosophy of “giving back” and to honour the education he received at the Otago Medical School, he bequeathed his body to the university’s anatomy department. Bruce’s message to students was always “listen to the patient and consider them as a whole person, not just their skin”. People never forgot his kindness and as a result, he formed strong and lifelong friendships with people from all walks of life, the true “southern gentleman”.