Doctor John Bunker: Anaesthetist who saw the dangers of private medicine


John Bunker, who in later life described himself as "a surgeon at heart" gave up surgery when he finished his military service and devoted the rest of his life to making surgery safer, first as an anaesthetist, and later as an epidemiologist and health technology critic. He was among the first to warn of the pitfalls of America's fee-for service healthcare system. In 1970 he showed that part of the reason that Britons lived longer than Americans was because they underwent less surgery, with all its hazards. He also warned against adopting new operations before their outcomes were properly understood. In the same period he investigated operation rates, mortality statistics and surgical workloads in the US and Britain, where he later worked.

Bunker, the son of a lawyer and a concert pianist, was educated at Roxbury Latin School in West Roxbury, near Boston. A notable part of his schooldays was a school trip to Germany, where he watched the 1936 Olympics, sitting opposite Hitler and his henchmen. Bunker earned his biochemistry degree from Harvard in 1942 and his MD Harvard medical school three years later. After his intern year in Boston he served for two years in the US navy as a surgeon in China and Guam in a team responsible for the care of 10,000 marines.

He undertook postgraduate training in anaesthetics at George Washington medical school and Massachusetts General Hospital, joining the anaesthesia faculty at Harvard in 1950. During his time there he researched the metabolic effects of anaesthesia and the particular problems of anaesthetising people with liver or kidney disease. Along with colleagues he was consulted by Pope Pius XII, whose illness included intractable hiccups.

Ten years later he moved to Stanford University, as founding chairman of the anaesthesia department. During his time there in 1962, he received a phone call: a teenage girl had died of liver failure a fortnight after receiving halothane anaesthesia for trauma surgery. With a clunky early computer, he studied data from 865,000 surgical patients. The results showed halothane was safer than most of its rivals, and that most of the deaths were in patients undergoing risky operations.

Towards the end of his time at Stanford his interests evolved towards the epidemiology and outcomes of surgery. In 1973 he returned to Harvard as visiting professor of preventive and social medicine, and in 1976 he became professor of family, community and preventive medicine.

A lifelong sceptic about surgical intervention, he was small, tanned, amiable, impish, upbeat, academic man with a lively mind and a sense of fun. Physical frailty in his last years did not diminish his lively intellect. He wrote, three books the most famous being "Bunker's Bible" – Costs, Risk and Benefits of Surgery (1977).

Retiring from Stanford as Emeritus Professor, he came to Britain as a visiting fellow at University College London and the King's Fund Centre. He took a longer and deeper look into medical intervention, publishing many of his best papers, including Putting the risk of breast cancer into perspective (with Michael Baum, 1998), The role of medical care in contributing to health improvements within societies (2001) and Measuring the benefits of medical care, a healthy lifestyle and a just social environment (2004). In his last years he was afflicted with heart disease but compensated with an even livelier mind.

John Philip Bunker, anaesthetist and epidemiologist: born Boston, Massachusetts 13 February 1920; Assistant Professor and Professor of Anaesthesia, Harvard Medical School 1955-50; Professor of Anaesthesia, Stanford Medical School 1960-1989; Visiting Professor of Community Medicine and Health Research and Policy, University College and King's College London 1990-2012; married 1944 Mary Franklin Bush (marriage dissolved; three daughters, one son), secondly Dr Lavinia Loughridge (one stepson, one stepdaughter); died London 4 May 2012.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
peoplePair enliven the Emirates bore-draw
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark episode 8, review
Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband (R) and Boris Johnson, mayor of London, talk on the Andrew Marr show in London April 26
General electionAndrew Marr forced to intervene as Boris and Miliband clash on TV
United States President Barack Obama, right, uses actor Keegan-Michael Key from Key & Peele to play the part of 'Luther, President Obama's anger translator'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions