Obituary: Lord Hunter of Newington
Wednesday 30 March 1994
ROBERT HUNTER was one of the new post-war generation of professors of therapeutics and a distinguished Vice-Chancellor of Birmingham University from 1968 to 1981.
I first met Bob Hunter when he was my opposite number as Professor of Therapeutics at St Andrews University. He stayed a night with me in Belfast on his way to examine at Trinity College Dublin. While we were having dinner there was a great hullabaloo from my children upstairs. Bob got up quietly, said 'Leave this to me,' and went upstairs. Total peace reigned - but in the morning at breakfast three little girls approached him with outstretched hands for the half-crowns, an unheard-of sum to them, which had been promised by him.
Hunter qualified in medicine in Edinburgh in 1938. He joined the Royal Army Medical Corps when the Second World War broke out and had just time to marry Kathleen Douglas in January 1940 before he went to France. He embarked at St Nazaire. The ship alongside his was bombed and sank. Badly burnt survivors were taken to Falmouth. He served in North Africa but was back in England before D-day to be appointed Personal Physician to Field Marshal Montgomery.
After the war Hunter returned to Edinburgh and spent a year with the then doyen of therapeutics, Professor Derrick Dunlop. Hunter's annus mirabilis was 1948. He was appointed a Commonwealth Fellow in Medicine and then a Lecturer in Clinical Medicine at St Andrews University, where the Principal (Principals had power in those days) promptly translated him into the Professor of Materia Medica, Pharmacology and Therapeutics.
Hunter was 33. They were exciting times for therapeutics. Penicillin, streptomycin, corticosteroids, oral diuretics, blood transfusion and electrolyte infusions had arrived. Hexamethonium bromide offered the first effective treatment for malignant hypertension and anticoagulant therapy was giving promise for the prevention of coronary disease. In 1958 he became the Dean of the Medical School at St Andrews and played a leading role in acquiring the land and planning the splendid Ninewells Hospital, with which his name will always be linked.
In 1962 the thalidomide disaster altered his life and mine. We were both appointed to the Committee on Safety of Drugs, the Dunlop Committee, set up as a result of the thalidomide incident to ensure that, before a drug could be marketed, its manufacturer should show that appropriate tests had been done to demonstrate it was safe and effective. Hunter was the Chairman of the Clinical Trials Sub-Committee. There were new and challenging problems on whether and how new drugs should be marketed by the pharmaceutical industry. Our American cousins admired us as 'a lean and spare apparatus for drug safety which operates at a tiny fraction of the cost of a comparable FDA operation'.
In 1964 Hunter became a member of the University Grants Commission and in 1966 became Chairman of its Medical Advisory Committee. By 1968 he had been in his Chair at St Andrews (after 1966 it was in Dundee University) for 20 years. He felt it was time for a change and he accepted the invitation to become Vice-Chancellor of Birmingham University. He found England very different from Scotland. The Scots respect learning and education. In Birmingham students went on strike, occupied the administrative buildings and trapped the new Vice-Chancellor in his room. The 8th Army man was pretty resilient, however, and set up his command post in his room in the middle of enemy territory and by telephone arranged that Senate meetings took place in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital nearby.
When the student revolt had been successfully repulsed, Hunter found himself at the receiving end of assaults on university funding. It was a difficult time. The reduction in funds from 1971 onwards was not accompanied by the power to alter staff contracts. The reduction in staff had to be by voluntary retirement, and this was too often taken by the able and the competent who knew they could get good jobs elsewhere. Hunter resented this stupid way of culling staff; humane perhaps, but not very fair on students.
I was particularly grateful to Bob Hunter for the steadfast support which he gave me and my Faculty when a member of our staff contracted and died of smallpox. There were allegations that our Department of Virology, which was doing important work for the World Health Organisation in controlling smallpox, had been and was a hazard to the citizens of Birmingham. Hunter knew that this was nonsense, bore the brunt of criticism with quiet dignity and in the end was fully vindicated: the case brought by the Health and Safety Executive was dismissed and it was clear that the standard of care and competence in our laboratory was as high if not higher than in the only other laboratories in Britain where smallpox virus was held.
Hunter was knighted in 1977 and made a Life Peer in 1978. After retiring from the university he gave much of his time most conscientiously to the House of Lords. He was a member of the Select Committee on Science and Technology and he was deeply concerned with EEC problems in Brussels.
Despite many years away from clinical medicine, Hunter remained always a physician in his concern for others. Tall, well-built and rather austere, he was a kindly man, modest, and always I think slightly surprised and delighted that he had had such a wonderful and interesting career in which at the beginning he had seen the introduction of the first sulphonamides and by the end could foresee the promise of modern molecular medicine. He had enormous support from Kathleen, his wife, whom he loved greatly; and they both had much pleasure from their extended family.
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