Lives of the fellows

Kenneth Playfair Duncan

b.27 September 1924 d.26 June 1999
BSc St And(1944) MB ChB(1947) MRCP Edin(1969) FRCP Edin(1976) FFOM(1978) FRCP(1980)

Ken Duncan was deputy director of the Health and Safety Executive. During his long career he played a crucial role in the setting up of the Faculty of Occupational Medicine, serving on the working party which led to its eventual establishment. He came from good Scots stock - being the son of a renowned Church of Scotland minister, the pastor of the Laigh Kirk in Kilmarnock, Ayrshire. With his intellectually rigorous upbringing, it was unsurprising when he won a scholarship to the oldest of the (then) four Scottish universities, St Andrews. He acquired a BSc before qualifying in 1947.

The first few years of the National Health Service were tumultuous ones for young doctors. For Ken it was no different - National Service in Germany was followed by general practice in Brighton. But he assiduously read the situations vacant column of the British Medical Journal and it was there he spied an advertisement for a post with British Rail. And so commenced a career in the little known specialty of industrial (now occupational) medicine which was to carry him, ultimately, to the pinnacles of influence and success.

Along that thirty year road he worked in the railway and gas industries - large, amorphous, post-war state monopolies, and moved to the new Atomic Energy Authority as its chief medical officer. It was in this post that his name became widely known and respected as he worked, and published, on the problems of radiation exposure.

Then yet another state industry beckoned him, steel. The industry had had a number of chief medical officers since nationalization and now needed a steady hand at the helm. There was even a suggestion, which never saw the light of day, that coal and steel might share a common chief medical officer. After all, their respective headquarters were side by side in Grosvenor Place. But amour-propre demanded that each have its our medical supremo so Ken became chief medical officer of British Steel, later to be retitled head of health and safety.

Next door, Lord Robens, with the constant help and advice of his chief medical officer, was labouring to produce what became the Robens report which led to the Health and Safety at Work Act and the subsequent setting up on the Health and Safety Commission. And so it was that, after five years at British Steel, Ken moved to the Health and Safety Executive to become, eventually, deputy director of that august body.

It is difficult to appreciate, a quarter of a century later, the apprehension which this new and untried phoenix caused. Many industrialists were used to the Factories and Mines and Quarries Acts, under which they pursued a cosy life. Ken and his colleagues seized the opportunity to inject new thinking into UK industry and Ken rapidly became known for his forceful promulgation of new ideas. He recruited well, not an easy task in occupational medicine in the late 1970s, and, when he left, bequeathed a service which had the trust and confidence of those it monitored.

He did not confine his activities to narrow professionalism. In the 1970s it was the practice in the Society of Occupational Medicine, of which he was a member, for the annual presidential appointment to come, alternately, from London and the provinces. But when illness caused one candidate to pull out a few months before election, the obvious person to turn to was Ken. He was duly elected president and managed the affairs of this burgeoning Society admirably, bringing to its executive committee meetings efficiency and a nice touch of humour. Such was the hallmark of the man.

For some time there had been a groundswell of opinion that this growing specialty needed its own Faculty. This viewpoint was most sympathetically received within the College. And so, in November 1976, a working party was convened by the then College president, which included Ken. Eighteen months later, in May 1978, the new Faculty of Occupational Medicine was born with Ken as one of its founder fellows.

He became the first registrar of the new Faculty and was ideally suited to the appointment. Many were covetous of the material rewards, or hubris, that fellowship or membership might bestow and we were put under very great pressure by a number of individuals. Ken had the ability to reduce the verbosity of their applications to the stark essentials and many were cast aside into the outer darkness, never to be seen again.

Ken was never deflected from his chosen path by thoughts of unpopularity. Nor was he slow to castigate some of his fellow physicians when he perceived them to fall below the high standards he set himself. In that sense he was never a ‘popular’ leader, nor did he wish to be.

But what of Ken, the family man? He grew up, a son of the manse, in Kilmarnock,which, in those far-off pre-war days had forty churches and forty one pubs. His father was renowned as a preacher and stood head and shoulders above the other clergy in the town. Much of the ethos and intellectual rigour of the Church of Scotland rubbed off onto Ken, including a profound sense of duty and an obligation to his fellow men. His Christian faith sustained him all his life.

His early days were no bed of roses and much of the credit for the way he ultimately emerged must go to Gill whom he had married in 1950 when they had been students and then housemen together. With their four daughters they were a close and happy family. They looked up to Ken with enormous affection and respect. He was always a keen gardener and toiled mightily constructing a tennis court. His beautifully modulated Scots voice is something that all remember. He enjoyed sport, without ever professing more than a workmanlike competence. Ken Duncan was a well rounded man, sharp of intellect, no sufferer of fools and with an impish sense of humour.

Roy Archibald

[FOM Newsletter Sept 1999; Proc.RCP.Edin,1999,29,361]

(Volume XI, page 171)

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