Lives of the fellows

Henry William Bunje

b.18 March 1921 d.12 August 2005
MB BS Lond(1944) MRCP(1946) MD(1949) FRCP(1969)

Henry Bunje was a former principal medical officer for the Medical Research Council. He was born in Hong Kong, where his father, Henry Ferdinand Bunje, worked for Shell. His mother was Annie Maud née Parker. The family’s unusual surname derived from Henry’s grandfather, a German sea captain from Brake, Niedersachsen, north Germany, who had emigrated to Hong Kong, married and settled there. Throughout his life Henry remained fluent in a form of Chinese, which he characterised as “kitchen Cantonese”. At the age of 13 he was sent to Epsom College, where his early leanings toward a medical career were nurtured. From there he entered St Bartholomew’s Hospital Medical College. He retained a lifelong affection for, and association with, the medical school, where his considerable gifts as an after-dinner speaker were held in high regard. He was regularly invited back to deliver a speech at the annual Christmas dinner.

On graduation in February 1944, he was appointed house physician at Bart’s, followed by a surgical house appointment at the London Chest Hospital. In May 1945 he returned to Bart’s, where he was a medical chief assistant, until July 1946 when, in common with the rest of his generation of young male doctors, he was drafted into the Armed Forces. His National Service was spent in the Royal Air Force as a medical specialist with the rank of squadron leader.

On demobilisation in May 1948, Henry returned to Bart’s as a part-time casualty physician, combining this role with a part-time post as a senior medical registrar at the London Chest Hospital. He then decided to widen his experience by a period in the West Indies, obtaining a position first as a medical registrar then as a lecturer in medicine, on the professorial unit of the University College of the West Indies in Jamaica and physician to the University College Hospital.

After three years in Jamaica and a further year as physician on the chest service at the Bellevue Hospital in New York, Henry returned to the United Kingdom and began his career with the Medical Research Council. Initially this was as a member of the scientific staff at the MRC Tuberculosis Research Unit, where he spent the next three years. In addition to his clinical skills and experience, his research and administrative abilities were recognised, and in March 1960 he was invited to transfer to the medical division of the MRC headquarters in London. In this new capacity he proved very successful and he became widely popular, both with his office colleagues and among the wider constituency of medical scientists. He was promoted to senior medical officer in 1964 and to principal medical officer – the highest grade – in 1980, retiring three years later at the age of 62 (having been invited to stay beyond the normal retiring age of 6o).

Henry was a man of great personal charm. Of elegant appearance and immaculate dress, almost invariably with a bow tie and a rose in the lapel (he maintained a fine garden at his home in west London), he was a gifted speaker and raconteur in much demand as a speechmaker. He also had an extensive knowledge and appreciation of fine wine.

Sadly, he was not to enjoy retirement for long, his later years being overshadowed by ill health. In February 1989 he became ill, developing muscular weakness in the legs. His ninth thoracic vertebra was found to have collapsed due to a myelomatous deposit. The neurological deficit responded well to treatment, but the trials and discomforts of multiple myelomatosis were not long deferred. These Henry met with characteristic composure, good humour and courage; and remarkably he survived another 16 years. He leaves a wife Elizabeth née Pryce-Jones (a retired community paediatrician), two sons (Richard and Hugo) and a daughter (Susan).

S G Owen

[Brit.med.J.,2005 331 1147]

(Volume XII, page web)

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