Lives of the fellows

Richard George Huntsman

b.5 March 1927 d.7 March 2015
BA Cantab(1948) MB BChir(1951) MD(1963) MRCP(1956) FRCP(1973)

Richard Huntsman’s special place in haematology arose from his early work on the abnormal haemoglobins and notably from his co-authorship of the book that established the field, Man's haemoglobins including the haemoglobinopathies and their investigation (Amsterdam, North-Holland publishing company, 1966). Richard was born in Perak, Malaya, the third child of rubber planter George Huntsman and his wife Mary Gertrude née Price. Richard moved to the UK at an early age; his memories of plantation life were encapsulated by a faded photograph of a pale child in a large pith helmet stroking the elephant given to him on his third birthday. In England he excelled at school and gained a scholarship to Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where he read natural sciences and then went on to clinical studies at St Bartholomew's Hospital, graduating in medicine in 1951.

Following his house physician years and two years in the Army on National Service (from 1953 to 1955), he returned to St Bartholomew's as a registrar in pathology. It was here that Richard, or ‘Dick’ as he became known to all his colleagues, met the mentor who was to inspire and shape his professional life. Hermann Lehmann [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VIII p.274] was a German-trained physician and biochemist who went to Cambridge as a postgraduate in the 1930s and subsequently moved, after the war, to a readership at St Bartholomew’s. He was a charismatic man, whose research at Bart’s in molecular anthropology soon attracted a lively group of young research fellows. Dick Huntsman was foremost amongst these in the development under Lehmann of foundation studies on variants of human haemoglobin. His MD thesis on novel variants gained a gold medal and the overall success of the group led to the setting up of the Medical Research Council’s Abnormal Haemoglobin Research Unit. The work from this unit, which moved to Cambridge on Lehmann’s appointment to a chair there, brought new understandings of the common haemoglobinopathies, including sickle cell disease. More significantly the identification of the rarer sporadic variants of haemoglobin, in which Dick was directly involved, opened the new field of human molecular genetics. These first insights, based on protein sequencing, demonstrated the constant variations in the human genome and confirmed the universality of the newly identified genetic code. Huntsman wrote clearly and fluently and became, in effect, a Boswell to Lehmann's Dr Johnson. The partnership culminated in their publication of Man's haemoglobins, an entertaining book that not only documented the science of the abnormal haemoglobins, but also opened the field to a much wider medical and lay readership.

Dick Huntsman’s innate enthusiasm had a downside in that it was restless as well as infectious. He was widespread in his interests and curiosity; there was always a new and consuming topic. In a subsequent post as reader in haematology at Lambeth his diverse research on ‘methaemoglobin levels in hibernating bears’ and ‘variations in testosterone in lesbians’, prompted Gordon Wetherley-Mein [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VIII, p.526] at St Thomas’ to ask, ‘Huntsman, what's this I hear about you working on methaemoglobin levels in hibernating lesbians?’ Yet it was this restlessness and ever changing interests that made Dick Huntsman such an exceptional man and that added zest to the lives of all who knew him. There was never a dull moment, especially for his family. The chance purchase of a trombone and they were all learning music, or of a tandem and they were all cycling!

In 1955 Richard Huntsman married Elaine Constance Deakin, an attractive young nurse in whom he saw kindness and a strong work ethic, which he shared, and practicality, which he lacked. It was a happy near 60-year union, blessed by the mid-1970s by eight children. Times were tough in 1975. Huntsman’s previous post was in Peterborough and the family were settled in Stamford, so he was faced with a long commute to London. Academic salaries were frozen and ahead lay the Winter of Discontent. Dick also realised that his independent spirit was seen by some others within the NHS as intransigence and that prospects of promotion and merit awards were dim. Emigration beckoned and The Daily Telegraph of 1975 duly reported: ‘Another family down the brain drain’, illustrated by a photo at Heathrow Airport of two proud but tired parents, eight dazed and confused-looking children and an incontinent dog. The Huntsmans had moved to St John’s in Newfoundland, Canada.

Dick Huntsman’s 15 years in St John’s, as a professor in the faculty of medicine at Memorial University, gave him independence. He was a natural teacher and won the best lecturer Silver Orator award on four occasions. He had always been adventurous, having twice crossed the Atlantic in a converted fishing boat, and twice trekked the Sahara in his search for haemoglobin variants, so it was a bonus to him that his duties as an overseer of blood transfusion services in Newfoundland involved coastal voyages to isolated communities.

Life was good and the children were educated, settled and flourished in Canada. Dick and Elaine’s hearts however had never left England and in retirement they returned to their cottage, in Brancaster Staithe, on the north Norfolk coast. Here they took a full part in the life of a small village. Dick sailed, researched and wrote of nursing services in the Crimean war, and tended his asparagus patch. Occasionally over a pub lunch with colleagues from the past the excitements of much earlier lunches at the Panton Arms in Cambridge would be recalled when, amidst good companionship, new insights into human genetic variability had been revealed and debated.

Richard George Huntsman died of a pneumonia, two days after his 88th birthday. It was only in his last days that his family learnt of the extent of his philanthropy. Unbeknown to them he had funded the education, including to university in Britain, of the four children of a younger colleague who had died soon after returning to Africa.

Dick’s funeral service was held in the ancient village church where he and Elaine worshipped, in the presence of their eight children, now all established as leaders in their professions. He was laid to rest in the quiet churchyard, fittingly within sea spray distance of the sailing waters he knew so well.

Robin Carrell
David Huntsman

[Fakenham & Wells Times 14 March 2015 – accessed 16 April 2015; The Telegram 19 March 2015; The Globe and Mail 31 March 2015 – accessed 16 April 2015; – accessed 16 April 2015]

(Volume XII, page web)

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