Lives of the fellows

Richard Alfred Hunter

b.11 November 1923 d.25 November 1981
MB BS Lond(1946) DPM(1951) MD(1952) MRCP(1953) FRCPsych(1971) FRCP(1972)

Richard Hunter was born at Nuremberg; his father was Ernst Hirschmann, a merchant, and his mother was Ida, daughter of Sigmund Wertheimer, also a merchant. The shadow of the Nazi revolution persuaded his mother to bring Richard, with his brothers, to England. Here he began his education at The Hall, Hampstead, before going to St Paul’s School and thence to St Bartholomew’s Hospital. He qualified in 1946, and between house posts at St Bartholomew’s and the Maudsley Hospitals, he served as a captain in the RAMC from 1948 to 1950. He was initially attracted to surgery, being house surgeon to Sir Geoffrey Keynes, but later turned to psychiatry. He held posts at Napsbury and Guy’s Hospitals before being appointed to the National Hospital, Queen Square, as senior registrar in psychiatry in 1957, and in 1960 physician in psychological medicine. Three years later he became consultant psychiatrist to Friern and Whittington Hospitals.

It was at Friern that Richard Hunter was able to put into practice what history and research had taught him. He had the gift of being able to relate to patients immediately, and to make them aware of his sincerity and determination to find out what made them ill. He believed that the abnormal mental state was not a disease in itself, but an epiphenomenon, a sign of dysfunction within the brain. Convinced of the importance of nursing care in a patient’s recovery, he supported his nursing staff in every possible way. They knew this and were devoted to him.

It was a paper on William Battie (Practitioner, 1955, 174, 208-215) which not only revealed Richard Hunter’s interest in medical history, but also marked the start of his book collecting. Aided and abetted by his mother, (Ida Macalpine: see Vol. VI, pp.304-5), he indulged this passion to such effect that over the succeeding eight years he had built up a library of psychiatric literature which was second to none, and comprised several thousand volumes. Moreover this formed the basis for their Three hundred years of psychiatry, 7555 - 1860 (1963), a treasure house of extracts from contemporary works, enhanced by penetrating comments. Three years later a paper in the BMJ (1966, 1, 65-71) in which they set out to show that the ‘insanity’ of George III was a classic case of porphyria, aroused some controversy. This was to some extent rebutted by their George III and the mad business (1969), for which painstaking research produced much new evidence, including the medical history of the forebears and descendants of George III.

President of the sections of psychiatry and of the history of medicine at the Royal Society of Medicine, Richard Hunter was much in demand as a lecturer; he lectured for the Faculty of the History of Medicine and Pharmacy of the Society of Apothecaries, and was visiting Trent lecturer at Duke University, North Carolina, Sloan professor at the Menninger Foundation, Topeka, Kansas, and Hannah visiting professor in Toronto. The enthusiasm which he had brought to his book-collecting showed through in his public utterances, giving rise to a certain forcefulness and often an acerbity which aroused opposition among his colleagues. He never was, and never could be, all things to all men; he was too much of an individualist for that. He did not suffer fools gladly — and he showed it. He was, however, a kindly man, modest and generous, almost impulsively so; in conversation with his friends he liked to have his pipe of tobacco.

The death of his mother in 1974 brought about a complete change in his lifestyle. A year later he married Thea Bostick, superintendent radiographer at Queen Square, and bought a house in Essendon, where for six years he revelled in tending his poultry and very large garden, and basked in the love of his wife and three children. Major surgery suddenly became necessary in the summer of 1981, and after a chequered convalescence, he died in Queen Elizabeth II Hospital, Welwyn Garden City.

LM Payne

[, 1981, 283, 1616-17; 1982, 284, 131; Lancet, 1982, 1, 58; Times, 1 Dec 1981]

(Volume VII, page 292)

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