Lives of the fellows

John Wharry Dundee

b.8 November 1921 d.1 December 1991
OBE(1984) MB BCh BAO Belfast(1946) MD(1951) FFARCS(1953) PhDLiverp(1957) FFARCSI(1959) MRCP(1975) FRCP(1984

John Dundee was born near Larne, County Antrim, the son of William Dundee, a farmer. He came from a large family and like most Ulster people was deeply attached to his roots and family connections. In later life he was fond of pointing out that one of the most notable British anaesthetists, Sir Ivan Magill, also came from County Antrim, only a few miles from John Dundee’s own home.

He was educated at Ballyclare High School and the Queen’s University of Belfast, graduating in 1946 and then spent two years in the City and County Hospital, Londonderry, where he met his future wife, Sarah (Sally) Irwin Houston. While there he became interested in anaesthesia and decided to seek a registrar post in Liverpool. Anaesthesia in the early years after the war was m a phase of rapid growth following the introduction of thiopentone and the muscle relaxants. Liverpool, under T Cecil Gray, was the centre of new ideas, particularly in anaesthetic pharmacology.

John soon moved into the academic stream and after a year in the University of Pennsylvania, with Robert Dripps and Henry Price, he returned to the Walton Hospital and the Liverpool Royal Infirmary. During this period he obtained an MD with commendation from Queen’s University for his thesis on ‘Sensitivity to and detoxication of thiopentone’ and a PhD from Liverpool for a further thesis on ‘Thiopentone and other thiobarbiturates’. He was not however working on one track only for inevitably he was involved in some studies with curare - always a main interest in Liverpool - and in early work on hypothermia for neurosurgical anaesthesia.

In 1957 the chance came to return to Belfast to start a new university department of anaesthetics and he built it up from 1958 until in 1964 he became its first professor. His objectives were to improve postgraduate teaching, training and research. For the former he started clinical meetings, to update all anaesthetists, and specific classes for the FF ARCS. He carried on his interest in chronic pain until other pressures forced him to hand it on to a colleague who was prepared to take it up.

Similarly, he was the driving force in the establishment of an intensive care unit, starting just with himself and a research fellow but ready by the time civil violence made it essential. It took its place with the best of the United Kingdom. He soon evolved as a teacher on any anaesthetic topic; a counsellor of the trainees, arranger of their postings to peripheral hospitals and - for the fortunate few - the driving force in their research.

John Dundee’s early research in Belfast was on other barbiturate variants of thiopentone but continued over a lifetime with different intravenous anaesthetics. Some of these, such as diethylalcohol were plainly unsatisfactory but interesting, while others such as methohexitone and propofol were real advances in clinical practice. One of the most successful, at least temporarily, was propanidid, produced by the German company Bayer, and he investigated every aspect which was practicable in the 1960s, giving the drug to large numbers of patients having short gynaecological operations. There were as many as 20 such patients in a morning and research methods included an elaborate system of record keeping and statistical analysis before modern statistic packages made this easy. His own enthusiasm and energy meant that he did much of the work, but always had one or two tutors with him. Immediately the last case was finished we would all sit down to write and no one was allowed to leave the building until the paper was completed - with references and summary. By this technique over 600 papers were published in 30 years, covering the whole range of drugs used by the anaesthetist. Whatever the findings, John Dundee was quite prepared to state them unequivocally, even if it irritated both sponsoring drug firms and some of his colleagues.

Tommy Gilmartin in Dublin was the moving spirit in establishing the new faculty of anaesthetics there but it was John Dundee who made sure from the outset that it was seen as an all-Ireland body. He threw himself into its administration as a board member, teacher, examiner and finally as dean from 1967-73. This did not stop him from keeping up his involvement with UK committees and he was elected to the council of the Association of Anaesthetists and the Faculty of Anaesthetists in London. He was on the council of the section of anaesthetics of the Royal Society of Medicine and was its president in 1979-80, and he took an active part in all relevant research societies. Lastly, and perhaps most onerous, he served on the committee on Safety of Medicines for many years.

John Dundee loved travelling and managed to get around even more widely than most medical academics. On one of his later visits he saw acupuncture being used as an antiemetic in China and resolved to investigate its possibilities. Studies in this field extended after he retired in 1987 and his interest in its application to cancer chemotherapy was very personal. One of his lifelong interests was in music, starting with ENSA during the war and including one tour with Ivy Benson’s Girls’ Band. He was also accompanist to the Ballyclare Male Voice Choir in his earlier days and a part-time church organist throughout his life. His Presbyterian church occupied much of his spare time, administratively as well as in Sunday worship. He extended this involvement to the Christian Medical Fellowship of which he was a past president.

Family life was very important to John and he was fortunate in having the firm base provided by his wife Sally. When the children were at home, she was always there keeping them all as a tightly bonded unit while John was inevitably airborne somewhere between Iceland and Hong Kong.

Tragically, their only son Wharry died when a student in Glasgow and Sally herself suffered from repeated illnesses borne with great fortitude. She was hostess to countless colleagues, both local and international, travelled with John when she could, and always managed to put him and the family first. As happens to so many, John’s long earned retirement was troubled by repeated exacerbations of his ischaemic heart disease. It must be said that he made no concessions to this and indeed saw no point in doing so since travelling to medical meetings was an essential part of his life, even in retirement. Sally died in November 1991 and John just three weeks later. Their three devoted daughters and six grandchildren survived them.

R S J Clarke

[Brit.med.J., 1992,304,710]

(Volume IX, page 140)

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