Lives of the fellows

Robert Alexander Amiel Buckman

b.22 August 1948 d.9 October 2011
BA Cantab(1969) MB BChir(1972) MRCP(1975) PhD(1984) FRCPC(1989) FRCP(1990)

Robert Alexander Amiel (‘Bob’) Buckman was a true polymath, a cancer specialist, a writer and a TV personality. Born in London into an accomplished family, he was the son of Bernard Bertram Buckman, an import-export trader, and his wife, Irene Fromer Amiel Buckman, who was a barrister. Educated at University College School, he studied medicine at St John’s College, Cambridge and University College Hospital (UCH).

While he was at school his talent for acting had already become obvious and, at the age of 13, he played the ‘midshipmite’ in Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore’ at the Savoy Theatre in London. At Cambridge he was a member of the Footlights Dramatic Club, usually known simply as the Footlights and performed with fellow members such as Germaine Greer, Russell Davies and Clive James (with whom he shared a flat for a while). While working as a junior doctor at UCH, he collaborated with a fellow housemen, Chris Beetles, in a comedy partnership which was a mixture of standup and sketches usually based on the medical profession. He began writing articles for Punch and scripts for radio, including jokes for Weekending on Radio 4 which supplemented his income by £2.00 per week. In 1978 he and Beetles performed their act on television as The pink medicine show and the following year appeared in The secret policemen’s ball, which was a fundraiser for Amnesty International.

Qualifying in 1972, he continued his training in oncology at the Royal Marsden Hospital where he gained his PhD. By then he was achieving success as a reporter, and then presenter, of science and medical programmes for ITV. With Dr Miriam Stoppard and the botanist David Bellany, he worked on Don’t ask me (1974-78) and its sequel Don’t just sit there (1979-80). It was a programme which attempted to explain scientific concepts to the man in the street and was to become, in its day, the most popular scientific programme in British television history. In a later programme more specifically oriented to medicine, Where there’s life (1981-89), which he hosted with Miriam Stoppard, Buckman revealed that he was a sperm donor when discussing the ethics of the issue.

In 1979 he fell ill with dermatomyositis, a congenital disease that caused him much pain and muscle weakness. Typically, thinking he was about to die, he turned his experience into a television documentary Your own worst enemy. Of this programme The Guardian’s television reviewer wrote ‘the surviving drive to describe his own disease and dissolution was one of the most striking scientific achievements I have seen on television’. She described Buckman as ‘one of those exciting scientists in full fizz who look as if they have access to a strong tonic not yet on the market.’ Eventually the cure came through some new cancer drugs, but not before his first marriage had collapsed and progress in his career as an oncologist put on hold.

On visiting Canada in the mid 1980s, he was very impressed by the system and remarked that ‘the vigour of Canadian cancer medicine swept me away’. Appointed a medical oncologist at the Toronto-Bayview Cancer Centre and assistant professor at the University of Toronto in 1985, he proceeded to re-establish himself as a serious scientist as well as continuing his media career. Although now based in North America, he produced two more series for ITV, called The Buckman treatment (1986, 1989) in which he explored what he termed ‘the American way of health’. Another terrible setback occurred when he was struck by an autoimmune disease which almost killed him, followed by an attack of viral myelitis, a spinal cord disorder which left him semi-paralysed for a while. Unable to properly feed himself, his friends took turns to come and make him lunch. When he eventually recovered, he toured North America, lecturing doctors on how to communicate with the critically ill; he wrote that ‘what my illnesses did was to make me braver talking to patients’.

Eventually he spent 26 years in Canada, moving to the Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto where he was pioneer of communication and supportive care in medicine and becoming a professor at the university. Recognised as an international authority on breast cancer, he spent several years commuting to Houston as adjunct professor of neuro-oncology at the most prestigious cancer treatment centre in the US, the MD Anderson cancer clinic of the University of Texas.

A prolific author, he continued to write for Punch and produce a weekly column for the Toronto Globe and Mail. Covering wide ranging topics, he wrote or co-authored, over 20 books and self-help manuals including Jogging from memory or Letters to Sigmund Freud Vol.2 (London, Heinemann/Quixote, 1980); How to break bad news: a guide for healthcare professionals (London, Papermac, 1992); Not dead yet: the unauthorized autobiography of Dr Robert Buckman, complete with map, many photographs and irritating footnotes (Toronto, Doubleday, 1999); Can we be good without God?: an exploration of behaviour belonging and the need to believe (Toronto/London, Viking, 2000); Cancer is a word, not a sentence (London, Collins, 2007); and Practical plans for difficult conversations in medicine: strategies that work in breaking bad news (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010).

A committed humanist, he won the Canadian Humanist of the Year award in 1994 and became president of the Humanist Association of Canada five years later.

Extremely well read and possessed of a very retentive mind, his main hobby was reading, preferably fiction, history and medicine. A bibliophile, his collection of antiquarian books included an edition of Dante’s Inferno with illustrations by Doré. He instigated an all male book group in Toronto that included doctors, bankers and media figures and many of the members remembered with affection his skills as a brilliant raconteur.

In 1977 he married Joan Ida née van den Ende and they had two daughters. The marriage ended in divorce and, in 1988, he married Patricia Ann née Shaw, a consultant pathologist at the Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto, with whom he had two sons.

He starred with John Cleese, acting out the doctor patient relationship, in 45 of the Videos for patients series covering such topics as, for example Parkinson’s disease. In 2011 he travelled to the UK, to spend a week making a series of short films with Terry Jones, another former member of Monty Python’s flying circus, entitled Top ten tips for health. Ironically, having celebrating the end of filming by having a pub lunch with the crew, he died on the flight home, aged 63. Characteristically, he had already written about his own funeral in one of his books – ‘At my funeral, they are going to play a recording of me saying: “Thank you so much for coming. Unlike the rest of you, I don’t have to get up in the morning”’.

Patricia and his four children, Joanna, Susie, James and Matthew, survived him. Sadly he never fulfilled his great wish, which was to meet his first great-great-great-grandchild.

RCP editor

[The Guardian; The Independent; The Telegraph; The Globe and Mail - all accessed 11 November 2015]

(Volume XII, page web)

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