Lives of the fellows

Colin Graeme Hunter

b.31 January 1913 d.14 January 1991
DSC(1945) ChB Otago(1937) DPH(1946) DIH(1950) MRCP(1950) MD(1958) FRCPath(1963) FRCP(1969) DVen(1972) FFOM(1979)

Colin Hunter was a true son of the British Empire. An Australian by birth, sometime resident of four countries coloured red in the prewar atlas and a Freeman of the City of London. He was born in Sydney, Australia, into a banking family but the family moved to New Zealand where he was educated at Scotts College and the University of Otago. After graduation his house appointments were at Christchurch Hospital, New Zealand.

In 1938 he entered the Royal Navy and rose to the rank of surgeon commander and a senior specialist in pathology. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and folklore held that he served in HMS Achilles during the Battle of the River Plate. During his naval career he had a variety of interests including pulmonary barotrauma, survival at sea, blood transfusions and the health effects of acute radiation. He conducted radiation studies with the MRC radiobiological unit and some of the staff of that unit later followed him to Shell.

After leaving the Navy in 1955, he became a professor of physiological hygiene at the Banting Institute of the University of Toronto, Canada, where he continued working on acute radiation as well as occupational hearing loss and physical fitness for undergraduates.

In 1958 the Royal Dutch/Shell Group decided to build an industrial toxicology laboratory. Colin was chosen to build and staff it and it was to be located in Kent on the site of the Shell Agricultural Research Centre. He visited the few existing industrial toxicology laboratories in the UK and USA and consulted with E C Amoroso [Munk's Roll, Vol.VII, p.10] of the Royal Veterinary College before designing a small laboratory of an exceptionally high standard, including redundant air-conditioning systems for pathogen free animal rooms. During the early days, Lord Rothschild, who was then head of research at Shell, maintained a continuing dialogue as to why lab animals required better environmental conditions than staff.

With few existing signposts and in a new field, both personally and scientifically, Colin built up the Tunstall Toxicology Laboratory until it had an international reputation and over a hundred staff. Although he himself served initially as the comparative pathologist and occupational health physician, his main contributions were in areas where he collaborated with the excellent staff he had recruited.

One of the early issues was the potential health effects of the organochlorine pesticides aldrin and dieldrin. John Lovelock, around 1962, had proposed to Shell scientists that the electron capture detector coupled with gas-liquid chromatography would provide a very sensitive analytical method. John Robinson, head of the laboratory chemical division, utilized the technique with Colin, to demonstrate the presence of dieldrin in human tissues and then to provide an accurate method for blood analysis to estimate current body burdens.

Since 1964 blood analysis has been used to determine occupational or environmental exposure to organochlorine compounds. Workers at the manufacturing plant at Pernis, Holland, have now been monitored for nearly 40 years forming the basis of a unique epidemiology study. Colin also co-authored several papers relating to dietary exposure to organochlorine pesticides.

Hunter and Robinson also conducted a unique human volunteer study, initiated in 1966 and utilizing Shell managers, to examine the pharmacokinetics in blood and fat, and health effects of dieldrin ingested over a period of two years. This study made it possible to extrapolate a daily intake from an estimate of the blood concentration.

Colin was an indefatigable human experimenter, often on himself. With Admiral Rainsford, he was interested in the use of urinary phenol as an exposure indicator to benzene. He had a self-contained human exposure ‘chamber’ built and would inhale up to 100 ppm benzene during a working day to follow benzene in expired air, as well as urinary phenol. He also examined the effects of organophosphate insecticides on volunteers, including the semi-volatile product, dichlorvos. While being interested in the effects of chemical exposure, he was also interested in physical fitness both for himself and other staff. He had always enjoyed a variety of sports and played squash well even as he neared retirement.

After he retired from Shell in 1972, Colin was staff medical adviser to the Canterbury and Thanet NHS health district for the next 10 years, here he maintained his interests in fitness and occupational health. He then moved to Devon where he continued his interest in clinical chemistry with the local health district. Colin was never mundane. He was infected with a benign eccentricity and ebullience that made him an interesting and amusing colleague and friend. He could be eloquent and was fascinated by the descriptive phrases employed by some of his trans-Atlantic colleagues.

His passion was the sea but his experiences with boats were not always fortunate. For many years he lived overlooking Dover Harbour. To obtain a mooring in the harbour he had to purchase an old wooden dinghy as part of the transaction. This boat provided his lunchtime activity during an entire winter as he gradually sheathed it in fibre glass. On the launching date he placed the boat on the mooring. Next day the Harbour Master called Colin’s wife to say that the boat was sinking; she said ‘What boat?’ He had neither glassed the centre board casing nor informed his wife of his leisure activity. On another occasion, a dinghy broke his leg; he was standing on the shore but a wave caught the boat and the bow then hit him on the knee.

He married Louise Riley, daughter of a mining engineer, in 1944 and during their happy marriage, of nearly half a century, they had a son and a daughter who made their parents proud of their accomplishments. His son was commissioned in the Royal Marines and followed his father’s interest in physical fitness by competitive rowing.

Colin was one of those people who are unique in their own way. He inspired loyalty in his staff and was loyal to them, providing them with opportunities in which to excel.

D E Stevenson

(Volume IX, page 254)

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