Lives of the fellows

Donald Hunter

b.11 February 1898 d.11 December 1978
CBE(1957) MRCS LRCP(1920) MB BS Lond(1920) MD(1922) MRCP(1923) FRCP(1929)

Donald Hunter was born in London, the son of George Hunter, deputy engineer-in-chief of the GPO, and lived there all his life. His mother was a remarkable woman, whose personal sacrifices enabled all her five sons to obtain scholarships to grammar school and university. All were to achieve doctorates in their chosen disciplines, but Donald was the only one who chose medicine. He entered the London Hospital in 1915, but interrupted his studies in order to serve as surgeon-probationer RNVR in HMS Faulknor, a flotilla-leader in the Dover Patrol. After the end of the 1914-1918 war he returned to the London, where he qualified in 1920. After a series of house appointments, he became first assistant to Lord Dawson of Penn. He was appointed assistant physician to the London Hospital in 1927 and became a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in 1929, giving the Goulstonian lecture in 1930 and the Harveian Oration in 1957. He served the London Hospital as physician, teacher and research worker for 36 years, until he retired in 1963.

Donald Hunter earned great renown as a teacher of clinical medicine, being richly endowed with what he himself called ‘fire in the belly’. He had a passion for his subject, and for accuracy and clarity. He employed an indescribable mixture of something like free association, a touch of Russell Howard’s instruction by abuse, with a vein of humour all his own. Others might have combined these attributes without producing the peculiar effect Donald had on his audience. The secret lay perhaps in his ability both to surprise and inspire, much that he said being unexpected but everything being important. Nor will his students easily forget the demonstrations given in the museum of the London Hospital Medical College, of which he was curator for 30 years. In his teaching he was at his best, for he appreciated that good general medicine was the bedrock foundation of sound doctoring. He restocked and modernized the museum until it housed more than 8000 specimens, representing almost all that is worth having in morbid anatomy. In addition, he mounted whole series of annotated clinical photographs.

Outside the London, he served on the British Pharmacopoeia Commission, the Poisons Board, and as editor of the Quarterly Journal of Medicine and the British Journal of Industrial Medicine, being the founder editor of the latter.

Hunter was director of the MRC department for research in industrial medicine at the London Hospital, and in 1957 he was made a CBE in recognition of the work his MRC unit had done in occupational medicine. In 1955 his book The Diseases of Occupations was published, and immediately became a classic. The fourth edition was published in 1969. He wrote all 1000 pages of the book in 18 months by getting up at 5 am every day. Donald and his team of doctors, chemists, physicists, engineers and technicians determined, or helped to determine, the following additions to the schedule of prescribed diseases under the Industrial Injuries Act: poisoning by organic phosphorus compounds, organic mercury compounds, tri-cresyl and tri-phenyl phosphates, beryllium and cadmium, as well as bagassosis and mesothelioma of the pleura and peritoneum. Donald did outstanding work on hyperparathyroidism and made a long series of contributions to industrial toxicology. He examined for many universities, for the RCP as Censor and Senior Censor and then, for many years, on the panel of examiners for the membership. Candidates sometimes found him rather formidable and perhaps a little unpredictable, but fellow-examiners considered him to be very fair.

He travelled widely for the World Health Organization, for various governments and medical societies, and visited many foreign medical centres as a member of the Medical Pilgrim’s travelling club.

After he retired from the London in 1963 he worked for four years at the Middlesex, and then for three years at Guy’s. Even at 70 years of age he continued to display the old characteristic enthusiasm and fire in teaching students, and this was undoubtedly his real love in medicine. In later years, his practice was almost confined to patients whose medico-legal claims arose from chronic poisoning in the various dangerous trades. During his time at Guy’s a colleague brought him a sick man employed by a pest control firm. In Donald’s own language ‘this unfortunate man, while working in the Pool of London, became the victim of acute methyl bromide poisoning. From a tiny boat he had the task of manipulating a cylinder containing enough of this deadly poison to kill the whole population of London: the target was, in fact, three maggots - no less. They were attempting to attack a cargo of five tons of dried peaches contained in a lighter anchored in mid-river. No doubt the maggots died. The patient was seized with giddiness, headache, double vision and slurred speech. He escaped the fate of the maggots only because of God’s good west wind blowing down river in some force at the time. It’s surely time that pest control experts, so-called, should cease to behave as if their aim were to crack a hazel nut with a ten-ton hammer’.

In his later years he also took great interest in anti-pollution measures, and deplored the fact that the Press consistently failed to point out how Britain led the world in this field.

He was deeply disappointed by the little interest shown in preventive and community medicine. He felt that public health doctors should hold university chairs in environmental medicine, and be given beds and clinical clerks of their own. To call a man a professor of social medicine simply because he was a wizard with figures made no sense to Donald. He called them ‘arithmetic doctors’. The student body should be shown the conditions in which men and women lived and worked, and not merely fed with statistics.

While working as first assistant to Lord Dawson of Penn, he met and married Mathilde Bugnion, one of his students at the London, whom he coached for the Oxford BM examination. ‘Thilo’ was the daughter of a Swiss pastor in Lausanne. They had two daughters, one of them a doctor who followed her mother to Somerville College and qualified in 1957; and two sons, the younger of whom went to King’s College, Cambridge, and qualified in medicine in 1963. The marriage was a very happy one, and he delighted in the fact that his wife was more than a match for him in intelligence, and a splendid help in his life’s work.

Donald was certainly an individualist, who could inspire the utmost devotion and, on occasion, the most violent opposition. He would never have claimed to be a saint and, indeed, delighted in telling the story of a house physician who came to bid him farewell, presenting him with a copy of For Sinners Only. In a letter to RR Bomford, in 1970, enclosing some notes for his own future obituary, he wrote ‘Hippocrates is dead, Osier too, and I don’t always feel very well myself. Therefore I enclose material suitable for my obituary in the College . . . and now to cheat all of you by living to 95!’. He was a great character, who well deserves his place in the history of the London Hospital and British medicine.

Sir Gordon Wolstenholme
Valérie Luniewska

[Brit.med.J., 1979, 1, 60, 134; Lancet, 1978, 2, 1390; J. Soc. Occup. med., 1979, 29(2), 81; Times, 19 Nov 1979; Daily Telegraph, 15 Dec 1979]

(Volume VII, page 288)

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