Lives of the fellows

Sarah Evelyn Bundey

b.14 Feb 1936 d.5 May 1998
MB BChir Cantab(1961) DCH(1963) MRCP(1965) FRCP(1980)

Sarah Bundey was a clinical geneticist in Birmingham, helping families by applying the findings of molecular genetics. She undertook her preclinical training at Girton College, Cambridge, having had to attend a ‘crammer’ to obtain qualifications in science as her school was not able to provide the necessary subjects. Her clinical training was at the London Hospital. Following posts at the London, Hammersmith, Brompton and the National Hospitals and in Cardiff, she joined the first genetics unit in the country as an MRC research fellow. This was Cedric Carter’s [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VIII, p.78] unit at Great Ormond Street. She then went to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore to work with Victor McKusick.

She went to Birmingham in 1974 when she and Alex Wright were married. The then professor of human genetics, John Edwards, found some space for her and tried to conjure up a small salary - he recalls that ‘officials in the University reacted as though Sarah was an unemployed drug addict with a police record.’ Luckily for all of us she was not evicted!

Sarah’s work in Birmingham began as a clinical assistant, then lecturer, senior lecturer, reader, rising to the award of a personal chair from the University of Birmingham. All her posts were part-time - and from these came over one hundred papers, many the benchmark by which others’ research is judged. She delineated subtypes of cerebral palsy which were most likely to be autosomal recessive neurological syndromes, and performed widely used population studies on retinitis pigmentosa, myotonic dystrophy and fragile X syndrome. Her major contributions also encompass muscular dystrophy, especially Becker’s muscular dystrophy, ataxia telangiectasia and Wolfram syndrome. Indeed, she was a pioneer in neurogenetics and the genetics of eye diseases, setting up in Birmingham some of the first specialist clinics in the country.

Sarah was interested in everything - in genetics, people, science and art. She was always surprised and delighted with new information - ‘No! Really?’ she would say with wide eyes as we discussed some latest theory. But she also demanded facts on which to act - hence the Birmingham births study, which followed the health of 5000 babies in different ethnic groups for five years and documented the prevalence of genetic disease. She also instituted pioneering work with the ethnic communities in Birmingham on the understanding of genetics and the provision of appropriate genetic services. Her legacy is the specialist worker in the clinical genetics unit who works with Asian families.

Sarah Bundey was renowned for her honesty and integrity, wisdom and advice, not only with scientific research, but also with complex ethical issues about which she was often consulted behind the scenes. As a member of the clinical genetics committee of the Royal College of Physicians she was the author of some of the planning documents used in the development of national genetics services.

How did she achieve all this - as well as her many other interests? Her abilities to set clear goals and manage time, firmly but politely, are legendary, but her door was always open for discussion. Her conduct of research was a model (like a military exercise, but with a greater chance of success our colleague, Jack Insley, always said). Electrical equipment sometimes conspired against her schedule: if one heard ‘Christopher Columbus!’ at our recalcitrant photocopier one knew to keep a low profile.

Sarah was famous for wearing a headscarf - which the genetics community felt made her look like the Queen - and would arrive at the (then) maternity hospital on a bicycle with an enormous pannier full of work.

Sarah was a practical person who simply got on with things once a need had been identified. She organized a sponsored abseil to raise money for the restoration of Birmingham University’s Great Hall, and was the first to go over the parapet before 36 other (mostly male, she used to say with glee!) professors. She was an active member and chairperson of the Birmingham University Women’s Club, successfully working to metamorphose (rather than mutate) its name from the University Wives’ Club. Some medical students will have met her at their admissions interviews, a task she enjoyed and took very seriously.

Sarah was so unassuming that it may be difficult to appreciate the degree of her national and international acclaim. The national and international genetics community contributed to a book of personal recollections about Sarah and her work which has been given to Alex, her husband, and their two sons. A mini-symposium was held at the Clinical Genetics Society meeting in honour of Sarah - not to look back but to show how Sarah’s contributions continue to allow genetics to move forward. In fact, the Society owes its birth to Sarah who made the practical arrangements and then became the first secretary.

Although Sarah recognised the importance of molecular studies, and indeed collaborated and published with units throughout the world, she was sure that clinical studies documenting the natural history of disease were vital to be able to interpret the importance and effects of DNA sequence changes.

She told me that she had not been surprised at the diagnosis of carcinoma of the breast because of her own family history. This was especially poignant as at that time the clinical genetics unit was setting up its services for families with a history of breast cancer.

P A Farndon

(Volume XI, page 81)

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