Obituary: Duncan Guthrie

By George Dick
Thursday 20 October 1994 23:02

Duncan Guthrie, charity organiser: born London 1 October 1911; OBE 1976; married 1949 Prue Holloway (one son, two daughters); died Amberley, West Sussex 12 October 1994.

DUNCAN GUTHRIE was a nonparty socialist concerned with the health and welfare of children throughout the world and, in particular, with the prevention of disabilities and the care of the disabled. With Alf Morris, he was closely involved in the All Party Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act (1970), which paved the way for subsequent legislation for the disabled in this country.

One of Guthrie's greatest achievements was the financial support of medical research. This started in 1949 when Janet, his first child, developed poliomyelitis. This was at a time when progress was being made in the United States in the development of poliomyelitis vaccines, while in Britain, as the late Bill Bradley of the Department of Health said, 'The problem of polio in England is - ignorance, impotence and insecurity.' Guthrie alerted society to this problem at the Festival of Britain and with his wife Prue set up the National Fund for Poliomyelitis Research with himself as the Director. Their first headquarters was two tiny dark rooms up three flights of stairs above a fruit shop in Spenser Street, in Westminster. Guthrie deplored the development of palatial offices and large staffs by charities and insisted that money collected for a charity should be spent on its aims.

When Director of the NFPR, he had to be persuaded to accept an increase in salary for himself while his wife was doing a full-time job to help support the family of three children.

In fund-raising, Guthrie demonstrated the same fertile and imaginative mind that had engineered his escape from Norway during the Second World War when the International Finnish Brigade, to which he belonged, was disbanded; and that he had shown in France when he was dropped there by parachute to associate with the Maquis and liberation forces, and later when he hid for weeks in the Burma jungle with a badly broken foot following another parachute jump.

One of Guthrie's earliest innovative fund-raising efforts was to introduce the popular Christmas Seals - adhesive seal stamps - by having a real seal (which refused to go in the lift) flobber up the stairs at the Waldorf Hotel. (He was discouraged from inviting the Lord Privy Seal to the reception.) In the organisation of the NFPR, which became known to many as the 'National Fund' or the 'Fund', he was subtle in using the power and the influence of the grandees on the Council but at the same time he had an advisory body of carefully selected experts who advised on the distribution of the funds which were collected. In the early days the fund supported the first European trials of oral poliovirus vaccines in Belfast which established their effectiveness and safety standards for their subsequent world use.

Following this, the fund supported many other aspects of medical research in relation to problems of disablement and funded the endowment of 13 medical chairs in universities in the United Kingdom. Guthrie was given an honorary doctorate and masters degrees from several universities, but he sought no recognition for the greatest contribution any individual has made to funding medical research in the United Kingdom.

After polio could be beaten, he changed the name of the fund to Action Research for the Crippled Child, which continued to support a wide programme of research in disabling diseases.

Guthrie then turned his attention to the relief and rehabilitation of the paralysed, not only in the UK but in the developing world, and set up 'intermediate technology techniques' for developing equipment for the locomotion of the disabled in developing countries.

When he retired as Director of Action Research he initiated a programme at the Institute of Child Health to provide essential health education for rural populations in Third World countries, particularly in Africa. This was called 'Child to Child' and was largely based on the novel idea of older children teaching their siblings about disease prevention and other health problems.

His lameness made commuting to London tiresome and after he retired for the second time he founded a small action group as a charity at his home in Amberley called the 'Disability Study Unit' with a committee of three. It supported various health research activities including the problems of Street Children in South America and published a number of articles including 'Caring for Someone with Aids'.

Guthrie was a scholar of the stage and of English literature, for which he had a prodigious memory. Shortly before his death he was finishing a book on reduplicated or ricochet words.

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