James Thomas Cummins AM, MBBS, FRCS, FRACS
15 November 1934 - 23 February 2020


When, on the 23rd of February 2020, James Thomas “Jim” Cummins died, St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne lost a good and faithful servant. Jim was born in 1934 in Warrnambool. His mother, Anne, was the homemaker and his father, James, was a secondary school teacher. He had 3 siblings, Isobel, Mary and John. To them and his whole family he was always devoted.

One of his favourite aphorisms, which he shared with his trainees, was “Family First”, long before it had political overtones. The last 3 years of his secondary schooling were undertaken at Assumption College, Kilmore where he was a boarder with a number of other students who became St Vincent’s Alumni. 

He began his medical undergraduate course at Melbourne University in 1953. In 1956 he signed up with the RAAF as a cadet which committed him to 4 years’ service with the armed forces after his residency. This was a decision which he never regretted. One of the highlights of his undergraduate years was his being part of the Olympic torch relay team. After graduation in 1958 he became a junior resident at St Vincent’s Hospital and the following year he married the love of his life, Anne, whom he had met while still a student at Assumption College. They had 3 daughters, a son and 10 grandchildren. 

From 1962 to 1964 Jim was stationed with his enlarging family at the RAAF Butterworth base in Malaysia. This was a very formative and happy time of their lives where Jim built his experience and confidence. When he returned to St Vincent's, he had already decided to pursue a career in neurosurgery having encountered Keith Henderson and Tom King in the Neurosurgical Unit. He continued his neurosurgical training, first at the Repatriation General Hospital in Heidelberg and thence to the United Kingdom at a number of centres but most influentially in Newcastle-upon- Tyne and later at the London Hospital where Tom King had become the Head of Department. He obtained the English FRCS in 1967.

Jim returned to St Vincent’s in 1971 and there had an extraordinarily productive career until his retirement in 1999 having become Head of the Department in 1988. In 1982 he was elected FRACS. Jim was an energetic and innovative neurosurgeon. He always rose to a challenge, the bigger the better. He had an individual style of operating with an emphasis on efficiency and minimalism. He had a very wide repertoire of surgery and his diverse experience made him a resource for younger colleagues to seek advice. He embraced new technologies, in particular the adoption of the operating microscope in the 1970’s with the support and encouragement of Keith Henderson. He made the trans-cranial anastomosis procedure his own, having perfected the techniques in the laboratory. 

He was a very popular teacher. He was generally patient for a man who didn’t like to waste time!! He would teach the most junior of scrub nurses, ward nurses and junior residents with the same ease as an advanced trainee negotiating a difficult operation for the first time. He was enthusiastic, forgiving, encouraging, supportive and practical in his advice. All who trained under his guidance remember him fondly and positively. Most memorably, he was approachable by anyone. 

Jim’s collaboration with Prof Iain Clarke of Prince Henry’s Medical Research Institute, (as it was known at that time) in researching hormone physiology of the hypothalamic-pituitary axis was a golden era in his career which spanned at least 10 years. Jim devised surgical techniques and animal models to examine this region and the results of this research were world recognised and contributed to scores of publications, many of which continue to be referred to. 

Jim was multitalented. Not all surgeons are practical with their hands outside the operating theatre but Jim was a home handyman extraordinaire and, like his surgery, no project ever daunted him. In addition, he developed a deep interest in genealogy and the tracing of his family history. The other passion in his life was the North Melbourne Football Club which he followed loyally and supported generously. 

Jim Cummins was a man who cared deeply and genuinely about other people. His family was first but his patients and those with whom he worked were always aware of his care. He pointed out the importance of knowing about the patient as a whole rather than just their illness and in doing so was well placed to assist them through difficult times frequently evolving into friendships which outlasted the medical episodes. 

Having such diverse interests, Jim’s life after retirement from neurosurgery was very productive and happy. He and Anne regularly indulged their love of travel and he was very happy to give advice about destinations but what was most important was their spending time together. 

As his daughter Jillian said in her eulogy, Jim “was always keen to get on with a job and get things done and dusted.” His final illness had the same qualities. It was abrupt in onset but gave him enough time to prepare his family. His last words as he was taken to the operating theatre were to his wife: “Give me another kiss, Anne”. 

His funeral, which fortunately occurred before COVID restrictions, was attended by a large number of people from all facets of his life. He would have been particularly pleased at the wake in the adjacent Greek Orthodox Church Hall which he would have described happily as a “bun fight”. 

In the January 2021 Australian Honours Awards his services to medicine, to neurosurgery and professional medical societies was recognised by the granting of a posthumous AM award.
A humble man of great accomplishments.  

Contributed by Dr Peter McNeill, head of neurosurgery at St Vincent’s Hospital, assisted by Jillian Cummins, Jim’s eldest daughter, with some minor additional information by Glenn McCulloch FRACS