Lives of the fellows

Keith Edward Halnan

b.28 March 1920 d.6 February 2006
MB BChir Cantab(1950) DMRT(1954) FFR(1957) MD(1957) MRCP(1966) FRCP Glasg(1972) FRCP(1973) FRCR(1975) Hon MD Gdansk(1976) FRSE(1977)

Keith Halnan was a former director of the department of radiotherapy and oncology at Hammersmith Hospital, London. He was born in London, but spent most of his childhood in Cambridge, where his father, Edward Thomas Halnan, was a don. He was educated at the Perse School, where he became head boy, and at an early age took a great interest in science and technology. He read natural sciences at St Catherine’s College, Cambridge, between 1938 and 1940. He left before his final year to volunteer for the Royal Corps of Signals of the British and Indian Army, serving for six years throughout the Second World War. He was mentioned in despatches in 1945 for gallant and distinguished service at the Battle of Kohima and in Assam, Nagaland and the crossing of the Irrawaddy river in Burma. Kohima was the last great battle fought by British troops on Indian soil. It was held in a maze of peaks and ridges, crossed by bridle paths, at a 4,000 feet pass in the mountain ranges of India’s easternmost province of Assam. This was a critical battle and helped prevent the Japanese offensive into India. The Allies’ success led eventually to Britain re-taking Burma – an endeavour in which Keith played a part.

On returning from the war he went back to Cambridge for a year to complete his science degree and then on to clinical studies at University College Hospital London. After house posts at UCH and Manchester Royal Infirmary, he went into radiotherapy research, working with Sir Edward Pochin [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IX, p.424] at UCH on radioactive iodine, the ultimate magic bullet of its time for thyroid cancer. There he met and married Margaret, his wife of the next 54 years, in 1952. Quickly his considerable talents were recognised and he soon became a consultant in radiotherapy at the Christie Hospital, Manchester, where he spent eight years from 1958.

He was then made director of the Glasgow Institute of Radiotherapeutics and Oncology, later to become the Beatson Centre, where he worked for over a decade building up an institute of truly international standing. In 1978 he was made director of the department of radiotherapy and oncology at Hammersmith Hospital. He retired in 1985. He injected a new research ethos and provided an effective platform for the launch of the cancer centre. In retirement he continued to work, living in Hong Kong for two years, where he was chairman of a government working party on postgraduate medical education. He also maintained a wide range of links with Asia, almost certainly spurred by his wartime experiences there. He was visiting professor in several countries and a member of various panels in the UK.

In 1982 he put together the first edition of the multi-author text Treatment of cancer (London, Chapman & Hall), which is now the longest running oncology textbook, used widely in Britain and those countries which use the British model of training. The fifth edition will be published in January 2007, a fitting tribute to a man who made an enormous contribution to oncology.

Karol Sikora

[Brit.med.J., 2006,332,917]

(Volume XII, page web)

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