Lives of the fellows

John Henderson, Lord Hunt of Fawley Hunt

b.3 July 1905 d.28 December 1987
CBE(1970) MRCS LRCP(1931) BM BCh(1931) MRCP(1934) MA MD(1935) FRCS(1966) FRCGP(1969) FRCP(1974)

John Hunt was born in Secunderabad, where his father was a surgeon to the Hyderabad State Railways and to the Ruler and his family. He was educated at Charterhouse School, of which he was later to become a governor, at Balliol College, Oxford, where he had a distinguished career, and at St Bartholomew’s Hospital. At Bart’s he was house surgeon to George Gask before a period at the National Hospitals for Nervous Diseases, Queen Square, as house physician to Sir Charles Symonds [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.563]. He returned to Bart’s as second and then first assistant on medical firms, and developed a particular interest in peripheral vascular disease, being awarded his doctorate in medicine tor a thesis on Raynaud’s Disease. He gained his membership of the College in 1934 and was elected a Fellow in 1974, the first from the ranks of general practice to be so honoured.

It was already becoming clear before the second world war that Hunt’s broad interests were leading him towards general practice, and a year or two before the outbreak of war he went into practice in Chelsea. During the war he served in the RAF, where he became a wing commander medical specialist. After the war he returned to general practice and started on his own at 54 Sloane Street, which later became the second headquarters of the College of General Practitioners. Here he installed a small pathological laboratory, staffed by a technician with whom he had worked in the RAF, and in the mews house behind he organized the setting up of a diagnostic X-ray unit. As the practice grew he had several assistants and formed a partnership that continued excitingly until his retirement.

His practice was one of the largest in London and attracted patients from all walks of life and from all over the world, for the depth and breadth of his knowledge of medicine and of people, together with his infinite capacity for pursuing any turn of thought that would benefit his patients, marked him as an exceptional doctor by any standards. His patients relied on his wise and kindly counsel and friendship, and his colleagues recognized his clinical skill and judgement which helped specialists and other family doctors alike. Those who were fortunate enough to work with him in his practice drew continually on his strength of character and immense experience; no problem was too small for him to discuss and give advice, all leavened by well remembered gusts of laughter which relieved moments of tension and anxiety. Above all, he had the rare gift of inspiring excitement and anticipation.

But also in his character was a single-minded determination that brooked no obstruction. After the 1939-45 war, when the National Health Service was being planned, the position of general practitioners was uncertain and unsatisfactory. The notion of an academic body to promote the efficiency of general practice had been put forward as long ago as 1844, but widespread efforts came to nought. With the advent of the NHS a new purpose was seen in uniting the widely felt aspirations of many general practitioners to bring order out of disorder through a college of their own. Following a crucial meeting at the BMA in October 1951, John Hunt and Fraser Rose wrote a letter which was published in the British Medical Journal and The Lancet proposing ‘...a possible College of General Practice.’ Memoranda from them both were published two weeks later and much comment was provoked, both favourable and unfavourable. In particular, the presidents of the Royal Colleges expressed their opposition to the whole project, but the newly formed steering committee, chaired by Sir Henry Willink, with Hunt as secretary, pressed on with its plans, undeterred. After the most careful consultations, a memorandum and articles of association of the College of General Practitioners were signed by the members of the steering committee on 19 November 1952 and published, with the committee’s report, a month later.

There was widespread support for the initiative from both medical and lay sources and within six months of its foundation over 2000 doctors had joined the college. Of the many men and women who had worked so hard to form the college, none had worked harder or displayed such determined leadership as John Hunt, and his work in developing the role of the college in this country, and extending its influence across the world, was to continue for the rest of his professional life, most notably as honorary secretary of council from 1953-66, and later as president from 1967-70.

It was during his presidency that HM The Queen graciously granted the Royal prefix, and the college became the Royal College or General Practitioners. The Royal Charter followed in 1972 when HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, was appointed an honorary fellow and elected as president for the following year, later becoming patron of the college.

John Hunt was honoured many times by medical and lay organizations throughout the world, and the award of the CBE as he finished his three years as president of the college was followed, three years later, by his elevation to the House of Lords. In the upper house he spoke with the wisdom of wide experience in many debates on medical affairs, notably in the debate on the 1978 Medical Act which materially revised the status of the General Medical Council.

Of all the eponymous orations he was asked to give, his Lloyd Roberts lecture ‘The renaissance of general practice’, delivered in 1957, was in many ways the keynote speech of his life, for it was uncannily prescient in its proposals for the future work of the college and of general practitioners. And in that lecture, discussing and gently deflating the popular notion of ‘the bedside manner’, he epitomized his own approach to his patients as he said: ‘...its components, I think most people will agree, are personal interest, kindness, sympathy, friendliness, understanding, cheerfulness and humour.’ Perhaps unconsciously he was describing his own personality, ethos and example.

In all his busy life John was singularly fortunate in the help and support of his wife Elizabeth, whom he married in 1941. She bore even more than the usual burden of a doctor’s wife, for not only his large practice but his work for the college, and his writing and travelling, made immense inroads on his time. In his years of retirement, when he was increasingly incapacitated by illness, she cared for him with quite remarkable devotion. They had five children, two daughters, a son who sadly died in early childhood, and twin sons. Both the latter are general practitioners.

M Linnett

[Brit.med.J., 1988,296,218,300; Lancet, 1988,1,194; The Times, 30 Dec 1987; News Journal of RCPG, Feb 1988,p.87-88]

(Volume VIII, page 234)

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