Lives of the fellows

Albert Alexander Cunningham

b.22 August 1908 d.12 October 1994
BA Dubl(1930) BSc(1931) MB BCh(1931) BAO(1931) MD(1934) DPH(1935) MRCP(1936) FRCP(1970)

Albert Cunningham was the son of Robert Cunningham, a teacher and headmaster. He was born at Port Glenone, Londonderry, Northern Ireland. His mother, Mary (née Lowry), was of farming stock. Albert was educated at Foyle College, Londonderry, where he had considerable academic success and gained a scholarship to study medicine at Trinity College, Dublin. When he qualified he topped the list of finalists, his progress through Trinity having been peppered with awards, scholarships and prizes.

During his time as a medical student he experienced several periods of ill health. His health improved after he qualified, but it was only when he took up his first house job at Huddersfield Royal Infirmary and had his first chest X-ray that he discovered considerable calcification in both lungs, showing that he had suffered from tuberculosis. After completing his house job at Huddersfield he obtained the post of RMO at Salford Royal Infirmary, where he came under the influence of Hugh Ashley who kindled his interest in childrens medicine. In 1932 he came to London, where he started as a locum in a large infectious diseases hospital in Dartford, looking after literally hundreds of children who were transferred from the London area in buses. Scarlet fever, diphtheria and meningitis were commonplace and Albert reckoned he had seen one of the last cases of smallpox. From Dartford he moved to Joyce Green Hospital and worked to obtain his DPH. Having obtained this, he progressed through various hospitals within the London County Council (later the Greater London Council). Having visited several hospitals the sight of the Poor Law wards, full of ill people crowded together, put him off the idea of working in that particular environment and he decided to specialize in infectious diseases. He was subsequently promoted to deputy medical superintendent at the Park Hospital, Hither Green, in South East London. In the meantime he had obtained a string of medical qualifications and degrees, and the MA Trinity travelling prize - which he used for a three-month study of medicine and infectious diseases in New York, Baltimore, Boston, Montreal and Toronto.

With the advent of war he was seconded to the emergency medical services, serving first at sector headquarters in Edgware and later as physician superintendent at Hitchin Hospital, Hertfordshire, a hutted hospital with an old Poor Law building. In 1945 he came to Kingston, Surrey, enticed from Hertfordshire. Surrey’s MOH showed him plans of the new hospital to be built there, but in fact this never happened - development proceeded piecemeal. Yet, when the war ended, Albert Cunningham managed to get together a team of keen young specialists who blended well with a few of the old. With the coming of the NHS medical standards went up very quickly but it took nearly fifteen years before the stigma of the Poor Law faded. Cunningham enthusiastically made plans for a new out-patient clinic, a new kitchen and cafeteria. The latter almost spiked the plan for which he would most probably like to be remembered. His scheme was to establish the first purpose-built medical centre in the country, designed and built with the help of the King’s Fund, which was also to have catering facilities - one of his ideas being that medical staff could meet general practitioners over a meal. But the Board of Management ruled that medical staff were to be fed in the new cafeteria and GPs were not to be admitted - hence the clash with Cunningham.

Albert Cunningham must have been among the last of that disappearing breed - the physician superintendent - and he was an unusually good example of the species. His brilliant academic and clinical record gained him the respect of his staff and what one must inevitably call his Irish charm gained him the affection of his colleagues. He also excelled at sports, playing all games well, although golf was his first choice. He was proud to have won the British Paediatric Association’s Cup, after being runner-up on several occasions. It was therefore appropriate that he should have met his wife Gwen, daughter of Albert Ward, on the badminton court. They had two children - Charles who is a company director and Jean, who followed her father into medicine as a family practitioner.

G B Hollings

[Brit.med.J.,1995,310,1325]

(Volume X, page 87)

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