Lives of the fellows

Robert Brockie (Baron Hunter of Newington in the District of the City of Edinburgh) Hunter

b.14 July 1915 d.24 March 1994
Kt(1977) MBE(1945) MB ChB Edin(1938) MRCP Edin(1946) FRCP Edin(1950) MRCP(1955) FRCP(1962) FACP(1963) FRS Edin(1964) FInstBiol(1968) Hon LLD Dundee(1969) Hon LLD Birm(1974) FFCM(1975) Hon DSc Aston(1981) Hon LLD Liverp(1984)

Robert Brockie Hunter was a former vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Birmingham. He was born in Edinburgh, the son of Robert Marshall Hunter, an actuary, and his wife, Margaret Thorburn Brockie. He was educated at George Watson’s Boys’ College and at Edinburgh University, where he undertook his clinical studies at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. He graduated in 1938.

After posts at the Royal Infirmary as a house officer, he just had time to marry Kathleen Douglas in 1940 before joining the Royal Army Medical Corps. He was at once posted to France, but following the German advance and the subsequent debacle, he had the good fortune to be evacuated from St Nazaire during a heavy bombardment. He subsequently served in North Africa with the 8th Army and attracted the attention of its commander, Field Marshal Montgomery, whose personal physician he became before and after D-day in 1944. He was awarded the MBE for his wartime contributions.

Demobilized with the rank of major, Hunter returned to Edinburgh, to spend a year with Sir Derek Dunlop [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.170], doyen of the academic world of therapeutics. In 1948 he was appointed as a lecturer in clinical medicine at the University of St Andrews, whose clinical medical school was based in Dundee. The principal of the University promptly promoted him to the position of professor of materia medica, pharmacology and therapeutics. He was only 33. By any modern standards it was a remarkable appointment. He had by then published little more than a paper on a review of antihistamine drugs, in which he developed an abiding interest, and a contribution to the Practitioner on cough mixtures. Nevertheless, he settled to his new post with aplomb, delivering an arresting inaugural address on the contributions of science to therapeutics.

During his twenty years in Dundee he made important contributions to the development of post-graduate education. He was a competent teacher and also established his department as a significant centre for research. Men such as G B West were given the opportunity of pursuing their researches on adrenaline and the suprarenal glands and Hunter supported J F Riley in his classical studies of the mast cell.

While at Dundee he developed a remarkable flair for administration and for successfully plodding the corridors of power. He served as dean of the faculty of medicine from 1958 to 1962 and played a major role in the planning and development of the new teaching hospital at Ninewells which replaced the old Dundee Royal Infirmary. At the same time he was increasingly called upon to serve on important national committees. He was a member of the General Medical Council from 1962 to 1968, and from 1966 to 1968 was chairman of the medical subcommittee of the University Grants Committee, then supervising significant developments in the medical schools, particularly those recently established. He also served on the clinical research board of the Medical Research Council.

In 1963 he became a founder member of the Committee on Safety of Drugs (the Dunlop Committee), set up in the wake of the thalidomide disaster and he was chairman of the clinical trials committee. This work led later to his appointment as chairman of a departmental committee to assess research into safer smoking materials, the hazards of smoking by then being well established. Many fellow members of his profession considered that Hunter was supping with the devil in appearing to give succour to the tobacco industry by endorsing a supposedly safer cigarette. In fact, his committee’s first report gave only a qualified endorsement and in any case smokers throughout the world spurned the product. He never, however, fully appreciated the addictive powers of nicotine.

In 1968, by now recognized as a power in the land of academe, he was appointed vice-chancellor of the University of Birmingham. He arrived at a time of widespread student unrest. Although he had never had to deal with student revolt in the calmer academic climes of Scotland, in Birmingham he at once encountered a student body prepared to confront authority. The students went on strike and for a while trapped the new vice-chancellor in his room. From there Hunter organized his response, arranging meetings of the University Senate in the nearby Queen Elizabeth Hospital. He was later to set up an external advisory group to advise on the improvement of internal relations. The group was chaired by Jo Grimond whose report was to lead to a number of more democratic but largely cosmetic changes in the structure and governance of the University.

The undoubted respect in which he was held outside Birmingham led to his appointment as chairman of the medical sub-committee of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Prinicipals between 1976 and 1981. He was knighted in 1977 and elevated to the House of Lords as a life peer in 1978.

He had to face one other major catastrophe during his time in Birmingham. The death from smallpox of a photographer working in the medical school, after WHO had succeeded in eradicating the disease world-wide, led to the university being accused of departmental recklessness and negligence. The matter was complicated by the immediate suicide of the head of the department involved, Henry Bedson [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.30], professor of virology, who had been working for some years on the smallpox virus. A visiting group of WHO had in fact already advised that the laboratory procedures in the department of virology were not in accord with its own safety procedures. A report by a committee of experts (the Shooter Report) had concluded that the escape of the virus from the laboratory had taken place through a ventilation shaft which led to the area where the photographer worked.

A case was brought against the University by the Health and Safety Executive, but in the event the University was cleared in court. In retrospect few really believed the conclusion of the Shooter report and there were later to be allegations that the escape of smallpox virus was due to human relationships not revealed at the time.

Hunter retired in 1981, devoting his later years to the House of Lords. There he was seen to be a spirited defender of the National Health Service, dedicated to medicine. He was never a charismatic figure, nor ever a volatile character, yet his quiet dignity, his deliberate manner and the care with which he prepared his contributions brought him universal respect. He was described by his fellow peer, Lord Walton, as "a wise and thoughtful man with much compassion. His criticisms (and they were few) were always couched in terms calculated to make his point but never to wound." He died suddenly in his garden. He had three sons and a daughter.

Sir Christopher Booth

[The Times 28 Apr 1994; The Daily Telegraph 7 Apr 1994; The Guardian 6 Apr 1994; The Independent 30 Mar 1994]

(Volume XI, page 281)

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