Lives of the fellows

Harold Hastings Gunson

b.5 July 1929 d.15 October 2005
CBE(1993) MB ChB Manch(1952) MD(1962) MRCPath(1963) FRCPath(1974) DSc(1978) MRCP(1980) FRCP(1985) MRCP UK(1987)

As the first national medical director of the National Blood Service Harold Gunson helped modernise and transform UK blood services. He was born in the village of Harrington, Cumbria, the only child of Joseph, a mining engineer, and Ethel Minton Gunson. The family soon moved to Burnley, Lancashire, where Harold went to primary and then grammar school, where he excelled academically. His school years were dominated by the Second World War, from which he emerged unscathed to enter Victoria University, Manchester, to study medicine.

He qualified in 1952, and for the first six months of 1953 was house physician at the Manchester Royal Infirmary. At that time, the MB qualification entitled one to become fully registered with the General Medical Council and house physician appointments were usually offered only to the more promising students. It is entirely characteristic of Harold that he would never claim that sort of excellence which, however, he clearly demonstrated in his subsequent career.

After a further year at the Manchester Royal Infirmary he married Margaret and they immediately departed for Toronto, where he became assistant pathologist at the Hospital for Sick Children. By this time Harold had become interested in paediatric pathology, which naturally led to haemolytic disease of the newborn. The technique of exchange transfusion through the umbilical vein using a plastic catheter had been developed by Louis Diamond and demonstrated by him during a tour of Britain in the early 1950s. Harold was in a perfect position to further this interest, which eventually led to 18 of his total 78 publications being based on this disorder. After three years in Toronto he spent a further 15 months in Winnipeg as research fellow in haematology and demonstrator in paediatrics, returning to the Regional Transfusion Centre in Manchester in 1959, first as senior hospital medical officer and, from September 1962, as consultant, and working with the late Fred Stratton [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XI, 560], who was regional director.

In April 1964 Harold took charge of the ‘satellite’ centre in Lancaster, where he spent 11 happy years, although Fred Stratton continued to direct operations from Manchester. In 1975 he took over the directorship of the Oxford Regional Transfusion Centre (based in Churchill Hospital). Although continuing to publish articles on technical serology, his move to Oxford put him in close touch with the world of haemophilia and that resulted in several publications with Edith Bidwell and Terry Snape on the quality of clotting factor concentrates. He also oversaw the move of the centre into the building of the new John Radcliffe Hospital.

In 1980 he returned to his home county on the retirement of Fred Stratton, taking over his post as regional director and was also appointed as UK representative on the Council of Europe Committee of Experts in Blood Transfusion and Immunohaematology. The 1980s were also notable for the appearance of HIV/AIDS; in 1985 Harold was recruited to the Ministerial Expert Advisory Group on AIDS, then in 1988 to the Advisory Committee on the Virological Safety of Blood. He was also a member of the Central Blood Laboratories Authority, a special health authority of the NHS which was in charge of two rather disparate bodies within the system – the International Blood Group Reference Laboratory in Bristol and the Plasma Fractionation Centre at Elstree (now Bio Products Laboratory).

In the late 1980s the Government announced its intention to remove the safety net of Crown immunity from NHS structures such as the transfusion services, opening them up to a system of licensing and regulation. The UK NHS underwent major restructuring in the Thatcher years with the introduction of an internal market and the blood transfusion services were caught up in the same theme. Until then the 15 separate regional transfusion services in England and Wales operated as a loose federation and each was run by its parent regional health authority. Much more standardisation across the board was needed and Harold played a leading role in establishing the guidelines for the UK transfusion services.

Harold became the first director of the national directorate and, with his colleague Roger Moore, set the quality standards all had to follow. When Crown immunity was finally withdrawn in 1989, although many centres still had a lot to do to earn their licenses, without input from Roger and Harold the outcome would have been much more serious.

The next major organisational change was the establishment of the National Blood Authority in 1993. Harold was the natural appointee to become the first national medical director and thus achieved his lifelong goal of helping to set up and shape a truly national blood service before retiring in 1994.

Following retirement, Harold moved to the Cumbrian village of Burton-in-Kendal, where he joined in the local activities such as exhibiting at the daffodil show.

Retirement did not stop Harold from continuing his commitment to transfusion. He played a major role in the hepatitis C litigation case and all who came into contact with him found him unfailingly helpful, always courteous, demonstrating his obvious dedication and pride in the achievements of the Blood Service.

A founder member of the British Blood Transfusion Society, he became honorary president from 1987 to 1989. In 1990 he was elected president of the International Society of Blood Transfusion and subsequently served as secretary general from 1992 to 2000. In recognition of his many years of dedicated public service to blood transfusion he received the CBE in January 1993.

Harold leaves behind his widow Margaret, sons David and John, daughter Elizabeth and two grandchildren, Rebecca and Christine.

Angela Robinson

(Volume XII, page web)

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