Deborah Hutton

First health editor of 'Vogue'
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The Independent Online

Last November Deborah Hutton, a former health editor of Vogue and author of several books on preventive health and innumerable newspaper and magazine articles on the subject, was told that the niggling symptoms that had been bothering her for a couple of months were due to lung cancer at Stage IV. Later, she would quip: "There is no Stage V." As soon as they were alone, Hutton said to her husband: "Well, Charlie, there is only one thing I can do; I'm just going to face this with grace and dignity." She did. Much more importantly, she also turned her personal misfortune into an energetic campaign to help people with cancer (Hutton disliked "cancer patient", let alone "cancer victim").

Born, in 1955, and brought up in Norfolk, Deborah Hutton was sent to school at Benenden, a standard curriculum for English roses. But English roses in the early 1970s rarely went to university, and even more rarely graduated with a First in English, as she did from York. In London, she worked for the British Council, until a talent contest brought her an offer of a job on Vogue in 1979. It was a vintage year for the magazine, whose intake also included the writers Helen Simpson and Candia McWilliam. From the start, Hutton was noticed for the energy, curiosity, and determination that were such defining traits of her personality, her skill at finding the perfect headline, and her sharply descriptive prose.

Vogue had no "Health" section when Hutton started. She made it her subject, because she was curious about it. "Deborah Hutton from Vogue" was such an implausible introduction for scientists or pillars of the medical establishment that it made them far more co-operative and open than they would have been for more orthodox titles, as Hutton would find when writing for national newspapers later in her career. From the brain to female ejaculation to incontinence, her choice of subject was rarely influenced by fashion or glamour. She worked for Vogue for nearly 20 years, until her book projects and her wish to spend more time with her young children led her into freelance work. She was the author of Vogue Complete Beauty (1982), Vogue Essential Beauty (1984), The Parents Book: getting on well with our children (with Ivan Sokolov, 1988) and Vogue Futures: health, fitness, looks and style for women in their 30s, 40s, 50s (1994); and the general editor of Vogue Exercise Book (1984) and Vogue Complete Diet and Exercise (1984).

As editor, author or journalist, Hutton would explore every option, find yet another doctor or expert, check, double- and triple-check facts, long before Google simplified the task. It was an approach she would put to use when Freddie, her fourth child, was born in 1996 with cerebral palsy. Freddie's progress was to be one of her highly successful long-term campaigns.

Her own illness was another. Although warned by her consultant not to look up her cancer on the internet ("you would be too scared"), Hutton stared the beast in the eye. Not in introspection or self-pity, but through her inborn need to know, and to act. She was angry to discover that, although 27 per cent of cancer deaths are caused by lung cancer, it receives only 3 per cent of the cancer research budget. A non-smoker for 24 years, she was also annoyed by the stigma attached to the disease, the idea that "people bring it upon themselves".

Her campaign evolved along three fronts. She used newspaper and magazine articles and television appearances to remind young girls and women of their greater vulnerability to lung cancer through smoking, and the medical profession "that 'hope' is not a four-letter word". She also wrote a book, What Can I Do To Help?, published the day before she died (she donated her royalties to Macmillan Cancer Relief), aimed at people living with or around cancer patients. It is a sensible, illuminating guide of dos and don'ts about how to make the patient's life better, and a useful source of practical information on the disease and help available.

Journalist as she was to the core, the most idiosyncratic aspect of Hutton's response to her illness was the creation of a web diary for her friends. She wrote virtually every day, with great frankness and humour, about her illness and her family life, and readers were able to enter their comments. She kept her blog up to date until the week of her death.

People of a reserved nature might judge the idea narcissistic, but they would be wrong. It was at least as helpful for her friends as it must have been for her, and there is not one moment of self-pity in seven months of her blogs. It is impossible to keep in frequent touch with scores of people over the phone, and terminal illness can easily create barriers among friends, however close, if much remains unsaid. The blog became the web equivalent of a circle of friends around a camp fire, finding comfort and refuge against the encircling darkness. Many bloggers have said, on the final blog after her death, that Deborah Hutton's openness has changed their perception of how to face their own mortality.

Although visibly wasting during her last three months, Hutton maintained her extraordinary energy until the very end. "What next?" I asked her after she finished her book. "I want to campaign for the ring-fencing of some money from tobacco duty to go into lung cancer research. It is disgraceful that the Government collects enormous sums from the main cause of the illness, but has no obligation to put it back into finding a cure."

Sadly, this was not to be in her lifetime. At the launch of her book on Monday last week Deborah, as elegant, alert and loquacious as ever, had to remain seated, a small nasal tube constantly feeding her oxygen. Three days later she died peacefully at home in her sleep, surrounded by her family, as she had wanted. During her last two days, the blog was updated by her husband Charlie and her twin sister, Paris. Lovingly, they brought it to the perfect conclusion its exacting creator would have expected of herself.

Guill Gil