Lives of the fellows

Kenneth Ross Hunter

b.31 May 1939 d.26 April 2013
BChir Cantab(1963) MRCS LRCP(1963) MB(1964) MRCP(1967) MD(1975) FRCP(1983)

Kenneth Ross Hunter was a consultant physician in Derriford Hospital, Plymouth, with a special interest in diabetes. He was a unique, multi-talented person who, if at times a little serious and impatient, had a dry sense of humour. He was highly principled, exceptionally intelligent, erudite, a prodigious hard worker and he had a great command of the English language. He gave outstanding service to his patients in Plymouth, to NHS at the district, regional and national levels, and to the local community.

He was born in Glasgow, the son of Frank Church Hunter, a bank manager, and his wife. After grammar and boarding schools, Ken went up to St John’s College, Cambridge, and then to University College Hospital, London, for his clinical training, where he was awarded the Fellowes gold medal.

After completing house jobs, which included working for Max Rosenheim [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.394], he was appointed to a general medical rotation post between the UCH and the Whittington Hospital. He gained his MRCP in 1967. The first trial looking at the effectiveness of dopamine as a treatment for Parkinson’s disease was just being completed, and Ken became a research assistant on a new trial, funded by the Medical Research Council, looking into a new form of the drug.

Having completed his MD, Ken decided it was time to leave the capital and work outside London. He was appointed to a rotating senior registrar post in Bristol, which began in Plymouth. During this period he gained his first experience of looking after patients with diabetes.

After working in Bristol for a further four years, he was seconded to Hammersmith Hospital to gain further training in clinical pharmacology. This was an embryo specialty, and Ken had the distinction of becoming the first person to receive a certificate of higher medical training in clinical pharmacology and therapeutics. The Department of Health was keen to promote the discipline, and Ken was appointed to the post of medical coordinator of CURB (the Campaign on the Use and Restriction of Barbiturates). This was to be a two-year post, followed by a consultant post in the west country with a special interest in clinical pharmacology. In the end, there was a financial crisis, which led to cutbacks and a review. The post was abandoned and Ken returned to Bristol. Soon afterwards, in March 1977, he was appointed as a general physician with a special interest in diabetes to the Plymouth Health District.

Ken began his consultant career at Devonport Hospital, before moving to Freedom Fields Hospital and then to Derriford. The diabetic clinic was initially run at Freedom Fields, the beds were in the Scott Hospital, and Ken’s only help was a clinical assistant. By 1999, there was a dedicated diabetic centre with five specialist nurses, full-time dietetic and chiropody support, and a team of research nurses. This multidisciplinary approach meant Plymouth became the first centre in the UK to move all its patients to a new form and strength of insulin. Ken’s interest in multidisciplinary teamwork was not confined to diabetes: his general ward rounds were always preceded by meetings with social workers and various therapists.

Ken was very supportive to all his consultant colleagues, in fact to everyone working in the hospital, and he was particularly kind and generous to his junior medical staff. There was one occasion when a senior house officer (SHO) asked a colleague of Ken’s for a reference. Ken happened to see the reference, which was somewhat brief, and he took the SHO aside and told him he would write one for him. On another occasion he wrote in a reference: ‘…don’t be put off by first appearances. He will be incredibly scruffy, he is however the best SHO who has ever worked with me’. Note ‘with me’, not ‘for me’ – an attitude typical of Ken.

Ken liked things done well: his preparation was always immaculate and he was meticulous about minutes. At hospital medical staff committee meetings he would always sit in the front and, having read the previous months’ minutes in detail, would correct not only the inaccuracies, but also the grammar, particularly the split infinitives. The chairman, Michael Grayson [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web], would often say: ‘now what has our nitpicker found this month’!

Ken was an active committee man. Before becoming a consultant he had sat on the BMA national committee. As a junior doctor he was a full member of the regional manpower committee and throughout his career sat on numerous committees at hospital, district and regional levels. Ken was particularly proud of his involvement at the Royal College of Physicians, as an elected member of the council, as a regional adviser and an examiner. In addition, he was an examiner for the College of Occupational Therapists and was awarded their honorary fellowship in 1992.

Ken was an enthusiastic supporter of the Plymouth Medical Society and served as both secretary and treasurer. Retirement allowed him time to develop his interest in medical history. He became particularly interested in the notes made by John Clarke [Munk’s Roll, Vol.II, p.369] in 1791 on John Hunter’s lectures on surgery, which had been found, rather mysteriously, in Plymouth, and this culminated in him giving the 2001 FitzPatrick lecture on the topic at the Royal College of Physicians. Ken also developed a great interest in naval history and he gave several lectures on Nelson.

He had many other interests outside medicine. He stood as a Liberal candidate for the Stoke ward in Plymouth in 1981 and 1983, and would have stood again in 1985, but was worried that he might win! Eleven days before he died, he made a supreme effort and went to a local meeting to grill his Conservative MP. Ken served as a governor of a special school for the deaf. He was on the governing body of Plymouth High School, and was chairman of Penlee School governors at a particularly difficult time when the school was making the transition from being a secondary modern to a comprehensive.

Ken was an excellent swimmer, and captained the school swimming and water polo teams. He was a very enthusiastic supporter of the Scottish rugby team, and supported enthusiastically any team playing against England. In his later years he played golf, though this did cause him some frustration, particularly as his swing did not come close to matching the grace and fluidity of his wife’s game.

Ken also had a great love of classical music. As a schoolboy, he would listen regularly to live concerts on the radio, eating toast and marmalade. Listening to Sibelius, one of his favourite composers, could reduce him to tears. He also loved opera and particularly ballet, and at the end of a performance it was not unknown for him to stand, loudly applaud, and shout ‘bravo’.

Ken met his first wife, Didi (Diana Newton John), at a friend’s 21st birthday party in Cambridge. Romance blossomed and they married in 1964. They had a very happy marriage and were blessed with two daughters, Ellie and Clare. Sadly, Didi developed systemic lupus and died prematurely of acute vasculitis in 1988. He later met his second wife, Penny, through friends. They married in 1991.

Ken was an excellent and generous host and visits to his home in Molesworth Road were never dull. Both Didi and Penny were superb hostesses, and he felt privileged to have had two wonderful wives. Ken lived life abundantly and to the full, and he made the most of his considerable talents. He also lived with kindness, generosity and decency – a life warmed by family and by friendship.

David Thrush

(Volume XII, page web)

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