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Biographical entry Hunter, John Bowman (1890 - 1951)

CBE 1946; MC 1917; MRCS 30 July 1914; FRCS 9 June 1921; BA Cambridge 1912; MA MB MCh 1921; LRCP 1914.

16 July 1890
16 September 1951
General surgeon


Born on 16 July 1890, the third child and only son of James Hunter, a shipbroker, and Mary Hood, his wife; his parents both died while he was a child. He was brought up by his aunts at Ayr, and sent to Bedford School, where he proved a good Rugby player, and to St John's College, Cambridge, where he took first class honours in natural sciences in 1912. From University College Hospital, where he was clerk to Sidney Martin, he qualified in 1914, and won the Fellowes gold medal. On the outbreak of war in 1914 he joined Queen Victoria's Rifles as a combatant, but was transferred to the RAMC in 1915, promoted captain 1916, and served as a medical officer in France and Russia till 1919. He was mentioned in despatches, and was awarded the Military Cross in 1917. Returning to University College Hospital he served as house physician to Sir John Rose Bradford, FRCP, and house surgeon to Wilfred Trotter. He was appointed assistant to the surgical unit, but in the keen competition among Trotter's able pupils did not secure a place on the honorary staff. He had taken the Fellowship and Cambridge Mastership in 1921.

Hunter now migrated to King's College Hospital, where he built up a solid reputation as an excellent diagnostician, operator, and teacher. With his colleague Cecil Wakeley he revised five editions of the successful Textbook of Surgery, originally written by William Rose and Albert Carless. While always a general surgeon Hunter was early in the field of thoracic surgery, and served the Royal Chest Hospital and Papworth Tuberculosis Settlement. He was appointed dean of King's College Hospital Medical School in 1938, and held this busy and useful post throughout the second war till 1946. In 1939 he assumed in addition the duty of group officer for sector No 9 of the Emergency Medical Service, whose surgical work centred on the large mental hospital at Epsom. He performed these two responsible tasks with devotion and efficiency, and was created CBE in 1946.

His administrative ability was widely recognized and used. He was elected chairman of the conference of deans, and appointed dean of the Faculty of Medicine in the University of London in 1943 and chairman of the Faculty's curriculum committee in 1944. He went with Dr B A McSwiney to Jamaica in 1946 to advise on the creation of a Faculty of Medicine in the new University of the West Indies, and served on the Colonial Office's advisory committee on higher education in the colonies. He was Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University of London 1950-51, and was elected a governor of King's College Hospital. At the British Medical Association he served on the Medical Planning Commission, was a member of numerous committees, and was secretary of the section of surgery at the annual conference 1931 and the centenary conference 1932. Under the National Health Service he became a member of the Southeast Metropolitan Region's Hospital Board.

Hunter's later years were troubled by cardiac asthma and by a vexatious lawsuit, which called in question his professional competence. Although he was completely vindicated, the worry affected his health and contributed to cause his early death. On 29 July 1948 in the Court of King's Bench Mr Justice Birkett awarded £6300 damages to a former American patient of Hunter's. Hunter had advised this patient that he was suffering from a malignant condition. The patient therefore abandoned his English business, but on further investigation in New York his disease was proved to be not malignant and he was cured. The point of argument was whether or not Hunter should have removed a specimen of tissue for microscopical examination before making his diagnosis. On 21 March 1949 Lord Justice Asquith in the Court of Appeal allowed Hunter's appeal, and on 16 November 1950 the House of Lords decided finally in his favour. (Summaries of the trials and judgements are given in British Medical Journal, 1948, 2, 537-9; 1949, 1, 595-6; 1951, 1, 44.)

Hunter married in 1922 Hilda Margaret, daughter of Dr Arthur Whitfield, dermatologist at King's College Hospital. Mrs Hunter was herself a Member of the College. He died on 16 September 1951, aged 61, at 12 Downside, Epsom, survived by his wife, son, and daughter. He was privately cremated, and a memorial service was held at St Marylebone Church on 28 September. He had practised at 70 Harley Street, and latterly at 39 Devonshire Place. Hunter was considerate, careful, and thorough in his work, both surgical and administrative. He was in all things unselfish, kindly, competent, and sensible.

Sources used to compile this entry: [The Times, 18 September 1951, p 8d, and 29 September, p 8b, memorial service; Lancet, 1951, 2, 547, with portrait, and eulogies by Sir C Wakeley, PRCS, H C Edwards, CBE, FRCS, Sir A Gray, FRCS, and other friends; Brit med J 1951, 2, 798; King's Coll Hosp Gaz 1951,30, 121, with portrait; information from Mrs Hunter].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England