Lives of the fellows

Oliver Robert Lewis Leslie Plunkett

b.30 June 1905 d.22 January 1991
MRCS LRCP(1932) MRCP(1943) FRCP(1966)

Oliver Plunkett, known to his friends as ‘Plunk’, was born in Cairo where his father, Patrick, was one of Lord Kitchener’s aides in the British Army. He was named after his ancestor the Blessed (Saint) Oliver Plunkett, a venerated figure in Irish religious history. At the age of four he went to a boarding school in England: even in the early 1900’s this was a tender age at which to embark upon an education away from home. He attended Brightlands School in Dulwich and then Eastbourne College.

Plunkett came late to medicine. After public school he read physics at London University. He fractured his neck at the age of 20 which left him with a mild hemiparesis and damage to his cervical sympathetic. During his recovery he became interested in medicine and enrolled as a medical student at St George’s Hospital at Hyde Park Corner. Following a series of house posts at St George’s he became medical registrar there in 1933.

In 1936 he took a short service commission in the RAMC and held the post of senior medical officer on Cyprus. At the beginning of the second world war he was sent to France as a medical specialist, followed in 1940 as a senior medical specialist in South Wales. The years 1941-43 were spent with the Army in Egypt, where he learnt to fly, but a serious episode of amoebiasis led to his repatriation. He was subsequently appointed divisional physician at Botleys Park War Hospital. Botleys Park was on the same site as St Peter’s Hospital in Chertsey, the war-time base outside London for St Thomas’ Hospital. In 1948 he took over from J A Maniford as physician superintendent, from the formation of the NHS until the administrative reorganization in 1967, and consultant physician until his retirement in 1970.

His success in the dual role of physician superintendent offers a striking example of the results which a dedicated but unassuming medical man could achieve. As superintendent he was responsible for administrative and financial policy, a function now devolved on the professional administrator. In addition, he involved himself intimately m the day-to-day running of the hospital on matters as diverse as the standard of food in the junior doctor’s mess and the supply of fresh linen on the wards. In committee he could argue points with vigour and was not given to tergiversation.

As a physician he was dedicated above all to the service of his patients. He possessed a remarkable breadth of clinical knowledge and an astute mind, which formed the core of the general physician, able to treat illness right across the spectrum of the modern sub-specialties of internal medicine. He was a gifted and enthusiastic teacher and many of his junior staff, who now hold senior posts, will recall with affection the clinical teaching which they received and his interest in their future careers.

Plunkett became deeply committed to postgraduate medical education. In the 1950’s he introduced a series of refresher courses for GPs, a practice which was subsequently accepted nationally and nowadays is almost de rigueur. In 1966 he founded the Postgraduate Medical Centre at St Peter’s, which has recently been rebuilt and in 1991 still bears his name. With considerable foresight he fostered an interest in medical computing and worked with statisticians at the then Ministry of Health to introduce the computerized analysis of hospital activities, a forerunner of the type of database which is assuming increasing importance in the reorganization of the NHS in the 1990’s.

These biographical details only hint at a complex personality. His gifts as a physician, administrator and individual stemmed from a blend of various traits - an unassuming humanity, a (well disguised) shyness, a logical mind, an excellent memory and abundant energy and curiosity. Allied with a wicked sense of humour, these were a formidable combination. They also admitted of a fund of ever ready anecdotes and he could hold the stage for hours at a time. If medicine was the topic of conversation then the listener was treated to a series of case histories dating from the 1930’s, which would rival an evening spent reading a textbook but which were much more entertaining.

Despite his neck injury he was a keen sportsman. An expert marksman, he represented London University at rifle shooting and won the civilian revolver shooting championship in Egypt. Other interests were modern architecture and electronics. He was a connoisseur of wine, possessing wide knowledge of French wines and a discriminating palate.

After his retirement he remained active and continued to keep up to date with medicine. He travelled frequently to the Greek islands, where he used to hold joint clinics with a local doctor; he made many friends and learnt to speak Greek. In his 80’s he visited New York several times each year and while there invariably attended a round or two at one of the large hospitals.

Shortly before his death he was planning to move to the coast and purchase a sailing boat. Unfortunately, this was not to be. His final diganosis, made with consummate objectivity, was the accurate prediction of the date of his own death. He was survived by two daughters and four grandchildren from his first marriage, and by his son Michael from his second marriage to Winnie, née Shaw, in 1945.

S P E Erskine

[Brit.med.J., 1991,302,589; Times, 2 Mar 1991;1991]

(Volume IX, page 422)

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