Obituary: Dr Jonathan Gluckman

Jonathan Gluckman, pathologist: born Johannesburg 18 December 1914; married 1940 Lois McLean (two sons, one daughter); died Johannesburg 25 May 1993.

ON THE WALL of Dr Jonathan Gluckman's consulting room in Johannesburg is a yellowing piece of paper with the words 'Good men have only to remain silent for evil to prevail'. It was a maxim he treasured, and which inspired the last, explosive, and ultimately triumphant, year of his life. His accusation that the South African police were to blame for many deaths in custody, backed up by his own autopsy findings, was at first ridiculed by the government. But now a high proportion of the cases are being re-investigated.

Gluckman qualified at Bart's before the Second World War, and trained as a pathologist while in the Army. As a teenager, his first visit to London was, he said, 'a cultural shock': he had been brought up to think of black people as units of labour on his father's citrus fruit farm. Now he found they were his equals. That change of perception motivated his lifelong concern for social justice.

As one of South Africa's few independent forensic pathologists, Gluckman was always reluctant to be drawn from his professional field into the unfamiliar political arena. Indeed, he told me that when he was asked to conduct Steve Biko's post-mortem in 1977 he had never even heard of him. But that experience changed his career.

Although world attention was focused on this and other suspicious deaths of political activists, it was Gluckman who compiled a dossier which has now exposed the far more common problem of ordinary people dying mysteriously in detention.

Last year he wrote privately about this dossier to President de Klerk, whom he admired. But the government response was dilatory and discourteous. Then, in July, he examined the body of Simon Mthimkhulu, a teenager from Sebokeng who had died under police interrogation: 'It brought me over the threshold: he lay there, horribly battered, horribly tortured and dead. He could have been my grandson.'

So, at the age of 77, he decide to break the habits of a lifetime, and spoke out in public. The government promised a comprehensive investigation, which never materialised, and then tried to discredit him with nods and winks about his age, while his fellow senior pathologists, employed by the state, were supinely silent. So Gluckman faced the music alone.

He decided to state his case in a Dispatches documentary for Channel 4 last February, which South African Broadcasting Corporation has so far shrunk from showing. Five cases selected from his files revealed a trail of fake post-mortems conducted by unqualified district surgeons (scientific fraud, he called it), 'informal' inquests being held without relatives or lawyers being informed, and official inaction over irregularities. As the producer, I had the privilege of working with this kindly, correct but courageous man, of the highest integrity, who was utterly convinced of, and convincing about, the justice of his cause.

He was never a radical - rather, in British terms, a solid conservative, an establishment man with an engaging streak of pedantry: that was what made his accusations so damaging.

He wrote me a generous letter after the programme, which he said had moved him. So rigorous was his professional approach that he had dealt only with lawyers, police and other doctors: for the first time he was hearing the families' stories from their own mouths, and he found this very poignant.

Yet he was so firm about his professional detachment that he resisted, rightly, my idea of filming him at Simon Mthimkhulu's grave, even though the case had been a watershed for him.

He was dismayed by 'hack politicians', in particular Hernus Kriel, Minister of Law and Order. The distaste was mutual: Kriel said that Gluckman's allegations against the police bordered on the criminal, but told us, smiling sweetly:

'We won't take action against him, because Dr Gluckman is not a young man any more, and about to retire to France.'

How wrong he was: Gluckman was so fired by his cause that, in my view, he was going to stay in harness till the end. His one regret about the film was that we had not included his challenge to Kriel to prosecute him and let everything come out in open court. That appealed to both his sense of justice and his sense of mischief.

If some in authority are breathing more easily after his passing, they misjudge him. The fearless honesty in Gluckman's files will reverberate to their cost long after his death.

(Photograph omitted)

ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
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 People

HR Advisor - North London / North West London

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Advisor - North London...

Finance Manager - Recruitment Business (Media & Entertainment)

£28000 - £32000 per annum + negotiable: Sauce Recruitment: We have an exciting...

HR Advisor - North London / North West London

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Advisor - North London...

HR Advisor - North London / North West London

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Advisor - North London...

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album