Lives of the fellows

Gordon Reginald Dunstan

b.25 April 1917 d.15 January 2004
CBE(1989) BA Leeds(1938) MA(1939) Hon DD Exeter(1973) FKC(1974) Hon FRSocMed(1985) Hon LLD Leicester(1986) Hon MRCP(1987) Hon FRCOG(1991) Hon FRCGP(1993) Hon FRCP(1995) Hon FRCPCH(1996) FMedSci(1998)

Gordon Dunstan, F D Maurice professor of moral and social theology at King's College, London, was a leading theological ethicist who made a significant contribution to the debates arising from advances in medical sciences and the changing face of modern society.

In spite of his huge intellect and his conservative approach as a committed Christian, his main endeavour was to help others disentangle the complex and often new challenges to ethical issues. He loved to help other people think clearly. His approach was not to impose doctrinaire views, but to examine rigorously all the evidence from both the theological and scientific standpoints. He never dominated debate, but in meetings his penetrating intellect and wisdom often crystallised succinctly what the rest of the assembled company had been struggling with for hours. His capacity to understand and indeed to challenge the scientists and the medical fraternity was legendry. In spite of his own personal convictions, one of his most remarkable qualities was that he had great respect for medical and other professionals, many of whom were leaders in their own fields, but who also held agnostic or atheist views. This did not prevent him working productively with them.

In spite of his extensive involvement at a high level in so many fundamental moral and ethical issues, he also gave his personal time to those working at the 'coalface'. He served innumerable medical ethics committees, always preparing for them meticulously, even when his eyesight was failing and reading was becoming extremely difficult. His work for the Royal Colleges was enormously respected and profoundly influenced the quality of their attempts to set standards of medical practice and medical research. His contributions had a profound influence, not only on the ethical conclusions in medical matters, but on the intellectual processes required to reach these. Sir Douglas Black [Munk's Roll, Vol.XI, web] was chairman of the ethics committee of the Royal College of Physicians at the time and they had much in common. Both displayed rigorous thinking, fearlessly searched for the truth, however awkward the conclusions, and always kept an eye on practical solutions in a very imperfect world. They were both externally shy men but had huge inner strength. And both had a whimsical, sophisticated sense of humour.

Gordon Dunstan was born in Devon and educated at Plymouth Corporation Grammar School. He took a first in history at Leeds University. He was ordained in 1942 at the age of 25, having trained at the College of the Resurrection near Mirfield. After curacies in Halifax and Huddersfield, he went on to work with Alec Vidler at St Deiniol's Library in 1945, before being appointed vicar of Sutton Courtney in Oxfordshire, combining this with teaching at William Temple College, Rugby. He pursued his teaching career at Ripon Hall until 1955. He became a minor canon at St George's, Windsor, and later at Westminster Abbey. From 1966 to 1982 he was canon theologian at Leicester Cathedral. In 1955 he became secretary to the Church of England Council for Social Work and increasingly applied his mind to social and ethical issues. This included his own research for a report to the Lambeth Conference on the family in contemporary society. In 1962 he published his first book on The family is not broken (London, SCM Press). He worked closely with Robert Mortimer, Bishop of Exeter on Putting asunder (London, SPCK, 1966), a report considering the divorce laws. Their conclusion was that 'irretrievable' breakdown of marriage should be the sole basis for divorce, and in due course this became incorporated into English law. Between 1962 and 1966 he also edited the Council's journal The Crucible, which is now the principle church journal on social and ethical issues. Over this time he was also secretary to the board of studies of the Church Assembly, which promoted further consideration of social issues.

His appointment in 1967 at the age of 50 as F D Maurice professor of moral and social theology at King's College, London, reflected his continued commitment to drawing together the sacred and secular in his research and teaching. With this came his appointment to many bodies, including the International Union of Family Organizations, the Department of Health transplant policy group, the advisory group on the ethics of gene therapy, as well as arms control and disarmament, animal experimentation and many others. Often working with medical authors, he co-edited volumes on euthanasia, doctors' decisions and ethical conflicts in medical practice, among others.

He was in his element as a member of the Nuffield bioethics committee, an independent multidisciplinary national committee set up under the auspices of the Nuffield Council to clarify some of the difficult current ethical problems and communicate these in a balanced way to the public for their better understanding.

It is no surprise that he became hugely respected by the medical profession and was awarded honorary fellowships of the Royal College of Physicians, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Royal College of General Practitioners, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and the Royal Society of Medicine. He received honorary doctorates at Exeter and Leicester Universities and was honoured with a CBE in 1989.

After his retirement to Exeter in 1982, he continued his research at the department of theology at Exeter and continued to serve many national and local bodies. He was, for example, a trustee of St Luke's College Foundation. This was a small independent charitable trust that awarded bursaries to Anglican clergy and those involved with religious education to undertake higher academic degrees. In this work he was in his element, combining his passion for the pursuit of excellence with his compassion for those in need.

Gordon was a shy man. Until one knew him well he might appear aloof, but his capacity for tolerance was immense and, while his criticisms were often penetrating, they were always delivered with great courtesy. Meticulous in his use of words, he never wasted any. His hobbies recorded in Who's Who were simply "domus et Rus". He was devoted to Ruth his wife (Ruby Fitzer) and his children, Edmund (a doctor), Gregory (a priest) and Helena.

Everyone trying to grapple with the dilemmas posed by advances in medical science and changes in social order in modern society will remember Gordon's unique contribution.

Margaret Turner-Warwick

[The Daily Telegraph 19 Jan 2004; The Times 6 Feb 2004, 10 Feb 2004; J Med Ethics 2004,30,233-234]

(Volume XI, page 173)

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