Lives of the fellows

John Andrew Kirby Cuningham

b.26 November 1916 d.9 December 1989
MB ChB NZ(1941) FRACP(1959) FRCP(1969)

The son of a well known lawyer, John Cuningham was born in Christchurch, New Zealand, and educated at St Andrew’s College and subsequently at Otago Medical School, Dunedin. He qualified in 1940 and then spent two years as a house physician at New Plymouth Hospital. He will be remembered as a man with a highly individual and quirky personality.

His postgraduate medical education was interrupted by war service. He entered the RNZAF and served as a flight lieutenant in New Zealand, New Caledonia, New Hebrides and the Solomon Islands. After demobilization in 1946 John spent six months as medical registrar at Waikato Hospital before going to Britain for further medical training. He was appointed house physician at Hammersmith Hospital and obtained his membership of the College in 1947. He then spent a year at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore, USA, before returning to New Zealand to take up an appointment as senior medical registrar at Christchurch Hospital.

He held the Cnristchurch post until 1953 when he was appointed to the staff as a part-time general physician. He gained his membership of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians and was elected to the fellowship in 1959. Ten years later he was elected a Fellow of the College. In the mid-60's a Pfizer Fellowship enabled him to return to Johns Hopkins for studies in neurology. Although trained as a general physician, his real love was for neurology and this special interest was to continue for the rest of his life. Subsequently, he spent a further term in Baltimore to observe the growing use of electro-encephalography.

As a skilful and well informed clinician Cuningham developed a successful consulting practice in Christchurch where his shrewd judgement and sharp wit were very much in demand. From 1972 he restricted his hospital and private practice to neurology. He made a considerable contribution to the establishment of a neurology department and became an active member of the newly formed Neurology Association of New Zealand.

Cuningham’s ward rounds were popular with both students and housemen. He was well known for his scathing comments on what he considered to be unnecessary and wasteful use of laboratory tests and drug administration. His comments would end with a homily on the importance of clinical judgement and common sense.

John Cuningham was chairman of the Christchurch Hospitals’ medical staff association from 1974-76. He was a regular attender at Australasian College meetings, at which he made many scientific contributions - usually on account of some unusual phenomenon or rare syndrome based on his own clinical observation and present in a characteristically precise way. He was a shy man who did not seek prominence in the Colleges of which he was a Fellow but he was always ready to assist with the organization of College meetings.

For the last ten years, until the onset of lus final illness, ‘Jake’ - as he was called by those who knew him - was the sole neurology consultant in Christchurch. During this time he was consultant to the spinal injuries unit, to the regional psychiatric hospital, and to the Christchurch Women’s Hospital He was also consultant to the Accident Compensation Corporation. He did not have much time for sport, although when a schoolboy he had excelled at running and rugby. During his adult life he enjoyed tramping and hill climbing; this was a sport he could share with his family. Sadly, his fine brain was eventually destroyed by Alzheimer’s Disease. His devoted wife, Yatala, née Brake, survived him with their two children, Andrew and Jessica.

C G Riley

(Volume IX, page 110)

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