Lives of the fellows

Thomas Cecil Hunt

b.5 June 1901 d.22 December 1980
CBE(1964) BA Oxon(1923) BM BCh(1926) MRCP(1928) DM(1930) FRCP(1935)

Thomas Hunt was born in Guildford. His antecedents are of considerable interest. His great-grandfather was William MacMichael, who received from William IV the gold-headed cane ‘for curing him of the gout’. Thomas’s father, on the other hand, was much less well-off— he was a clergyman and classical scholar — and having educated the two eldest boys, there was not much left in the till when the time came for Thomas’s education. So this was won the hard way, with scholarships to St Paul’s, Magdalen College (Oxford) and St Mary’s. He still felt the pinch after leaving the University, for during his first year at St Mary’s he used to travel to Oxford each week, to do physiology tutoring and demonstrating for Charles Sherrington. After qualifying he won a Radcliffe travelling fellowship, which had also been won more than 100 years earlier by his great-grandfather. He opted for Vienna, where he studied endocrinology, and his teacher there was Bauer whom he was later to repay when, in Nazi-ridden 1938, Bauer had to be got out of Austria.

TCH was appointed to St Mary’s in 1930, and this coincided with his marriage to the actress Barbara Todd. TCH said ‘I fixed the marriage, but not the appointment’, and the meaning of this had its origins in sport. He was a good wicket-keeper and narrowly missed a blue at Oxford. He was also an occasional batsman, and on a cricket tour in Guernsey the gods were with him. The girl of his choice was watching, and he hit 50 in four overs. Barbara’s theatre career was reduced to tatters, but it was worth it as they lived happily together for fifty years, their golden wedding being celebrated shortly before his death, and they had a most distinguished family.

Other appointments held by TCH were physician to the Royal Masonic Hospital, Paddington Hospital, King Edward VII Hospital for Officers, and chairman of the Medical Sickness Annuity and Life Assurance Society.

Gastroenterology became Thomas’s specialty by chance rather than design. After his appointment at St Mary’s (which at that time was, of course, honorary) he was awarded a Mackenzie McKinnon fellowship which gave him a £400 p.a. grant to study duodenal intubation. His papers on the subject greatly impressed Arthur Hurst, and in 1936 Hurst invited Thomas and one or two others to dinner at the Athenaeum and suggested that they form a gastroenterological club. This was the beginning of what, in 1945, was to become the British Society of Gastroenterology. Later on, when Gut became its official journal, Thomas was a member of the editorial board.

In January 1940 Thomas joined the RAMC, and his lifelong love of travel was fully satisfied over the five years of war. One of his early appointments was consulting physician in Freetown, which gave him the chance of going aboard almost every troopship in the Merchant Navy. Later, as a brigadier, he was consultant in Algeria and Iraq, and with his headquarters in Baghdad he visited most countries in the Middle East as well as India.

After the war he played an important part in the early stages of the European and Mediterranean Society of Gastroenterology, and presided at the London Congress in 1956. The World Congress of Gastroenterology also greatly appealed to him, and he was its president from 1962 to 1966. Aged 70 and still very active, he organized the British Digestive Foundation to raise funds for research into gastrointestinal disorders, and a special appeal was made on the 100th anniversary of Hurst’s birth. He had a wide interest in epidemiology and nutrition, and was chairman of an international working party on environmental factors in alimentary cancer. He made a continuing contribution to gastroenterology for nearly fifty years.

A characteristic of Thomas’s was his great enthusiasm when championing causes, and one of the most important of these was visiting and advising universities in the new countries of the Commonwealth (often with Professor Kinmonth), and he was closely connected with the new medical school at Ibadan, and also in the West Indies. It could have been surmised that he would have preferred to have lived a hundred years ago, when the map was still red, but this was not so. With his mental toughness he found multiracial societies far more exciting - they were a great challenge to his ability to handle difficult situations and to bring peace.

With his own upbringing, and his marriage to someone of wide artistic tastes, it is not surprising that his house should reflect the sensibility and discrimination of both of them. Their delightful hospitality is a very happy memory. They had a splendid collection of Nymphenburg china, and among their books an almost complete set of first editions of Somerset Maugham, and a volume by William MacMichael describing his journey from Russia to Constantinople on his Radcliffe fellowship in 1817. Thomas and Barbara also did a great deal, both on the professional and artistic side, for the Medical Society of London, of which he had been president.

Thomas was a great RCP man, having been senior censor and senior vice-president. He was a considerable force on the Conjoint Board, and had strong views on the merit of the examination. The soft voice could also be very firm and come down most decidedly on one or other side of the fence, and on two occasions he changed the course of history. Before the war Churchill often consulted him, and one day the leader-to-be rang up asking for an appointment at 4.30 pm. Thomas was quite firm — he had another patient at that time. Winston was nettled and switched to Charles Moran, and thereby hangs another story [Moran, Winston Churchill: the struggle for survival 1940 — 1965 . . . (1966)]. The second occasion was when it was left to TCH (with two others) to decide whether or not Anthony Eden’s health was robust enough for him to remain in office as the prime minister. The answer was a regretful but entirely firm ‘No’.

His strong interest in medical history was reflected in his Harveian Oration in 1973 at the College, Digestive diseases: the changing scene, and in his Lettsomian lectures to the Medical Society of London in 1973, Doubt, Dogma and Dyspepsia.

He was, above all, a medical diplomat both at home and overseas. One of his outstanding qualities was his ability to understand and often reconcile conflicting opinions. His sincerity, charm of manner, his gift as a conversationalist, his eloquence as a speaker, his wide artistic interests and considerable ability as a linguist, made him one of the most distinguished physicians of his time.

Sir Cyril Clarke
Sir Francis Avery Jones

[Brit.med.J., 1981, 282, 234, 397; Lancet, 1981, 1, 110; St. Mary’s Hosp. Gaz., Mar/Apr 1962; Commemoration of Dr. Thomas Hunt, St. Mary’s Hosp, and Med. School & Brit. Soc. Gastroenterology, 21 Jan 1982]

(Volume VII, page 286)

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