Lives of the fellows

John Forbes Munro

b.25 June 1933 d.4 July 2013
OBE(1992) MB ChB Edin(1960) MRCP Edin(1963) FRCP Edin(1971) FRCP Glasg(1997) FRCP(1997)

John Munro was a consultant in general medicine at the Eastern General Hospital, Edinburgh, and Edenhall Hospital, Musselburgh. He was a renowned teacher of undergraduates and postgraduates, and had a special interest in treating obesity.

He was born in Edinburgh, the son of John Bennett Lorimer Munro, a civil servant, and Gladys Maie Forbes née Simmons, a teacher. The family spent some time in India before settling in Essex. His schooling was divided between Edinburgh Academy and Chigwell School. He had a life-long dislike of bureaucracy and hypocrisy. He was a bright pupil and, although he won a scholarship to read history at Oxford, he chose instead to read medicine in Edinburgh. Before doing so, he had to serve his National Service, during which he did not take kindly to Army discipline. He had not studied sciences at school and catching up during the first year of the Scottish course was hard work, but he attained a gold medal in anatomy and came into his own in the clinical years of the course. He achieved many distinctions and in 1960 qualified MB ChB with honours.

His postgraduate posts were at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, where his mentors included Sir Derrick Dunlop [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.170] and Leslie Duncan. At this time he developed his skill at teaching, which he loved. His teaching was never conventional, but always memorable. Although a rather ‘scruffy and disruptive character’ (his own words), he was clearly destined to become a leading member of Edinburgh’s medical establishment. At that time, in addition to the Royal Infirmary, Edinburgh had perhaps a dozen smaller hospitals, many of which had acute medical units. It was a surprise to all when he accepted a consultant post at these smaller hospitals, working between the Eastern General Hospital in Edinburgh and Edenhall Hospital, Musselburgh. His appointment transformed the hospitals, which became centres of medical excellence, with a renowned reputation for teaching of both undergraduates and postgraduates. He became well-known for his ‘Sunday school’ sessions for those who were studying for the MRCP. An attachment to the ‘Eastern’ was fiercely contested by both postgraduates and undergraduates. Many high-flyers shunned more prestigious junior posts in order to work at the Eastern. His former students and junior doctors include many professors and global leaders in medicine.

John was primarily a clinician. He had an unerring ability to achieve the most difficult diagnoses with modesty and ease. His caring nature meant that he always put the patient first and made time to speak to them and their relatives. As a result he worked exceptionally long hours, but did not allow this to compromise his other interests. He was a strong believer in the team approach to patient care, and pioneered regular meetings with nurses, physiotherapists, occupational therapists and social workers. All from the most junior to the most senior felt their opinions were valued. The team approach included the local general practitioners, with whom he had strong links. Some indeed were his closest friends.

He appreciated that if junior staff were to progress, they should produce publications. He ran a large obesity service and from this many papers were written and he became an international speaker. Publications from the department were checked meticulously and presentations rehearsed. He took over as editor of Macleod’s clinical examination (Edinburgh, Churchill Livingstone) and developed it into a truly international textbook for undergraduates. In 1993 he became registrar of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, helping to establish the MRCP examination in India, Malaysia, Bangladesh and Singapore.

He was always keen on sport. On his appointment to the Eastern General Hospital, an area of waste ground became the hospital’s hockey pitch. The Eastern hockey matches were fiercely competitive yet light-hearted events open to all. Throughout his life he had a keen interest in the outdoors. He lived in a fine old house in the country and to him gardening was a competitive hobby. He and a great friend, a GP, compared their results over lunch in the hospital canteen. Because of his long hours at work, on at least one occasion John’s seed potatoes had to be planted by torch-light in order to ensure he achieved the larger crop!

In the 1970s a local farmer gave over a field near John’s house for land-fill. Most would have considered this a disaster, but to John it was an opportunity. He and his dog, which he described as the best ratter he had ever known, used to pick over the dump to recycle building materials, which he happily supplied to his friends.

Care of his patients was much more important to him than his appearance. Juniors used to joke about the way his shirt-tail often hung out. He drove a succession of old rusting cars of varying reliability. On one occasion he was giving a talk to a group of GPs in an underprivileged area of Edinburgh and, on returning to his car, was horrified to find the driver’s window had been broken, in order to steal the radio. The damage was so unnecessary because his car was never locked!

In later life, John was able to follow his interest in contemporary Scottish art. He amassed a sizable collection of paintings and supported many local artists. He was director of the Edinburgh Printmakers Workshop and an adviser to the Scottish Arts Council. He arranged art exhibitions, both at the Eastern General Hospital and the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh.

Although his work ethic meant John spent much less time with his family than he would have liked, they were very important to him. He married his wife, Jeannie (Elizabeth Jean Durrell née Caird) when he was still a student, and she gave him the solid support he needed. He was very proud of their three daughters and six grandchildren. He died just after his 80th birthday.

Roger Kellett

[The Scotsman 10 October 2013 – accessed 3 December 2013; Debrett’s – accessed 3 December 2013; The Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh – accessed 3 December 2013]

(Volume XII, page web)

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