University of Otago Otago Medical School Alumni Association

Obituary - Emeritus Professor John Hunter

Professor Hunter, former Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, University of Otago, died in July 2003. We reprint, in abridged form, the following obituary from the Otago Daily Times (16 August 2003), by kind permission of the Editor.

Emeritus Professor John Hunter

Emeritus Professor John Hunter

Professor Hunter, in a long and distinguished career, became a "family man, physician, teacher, mentor, researcher, administrator, negotiator and statesman", as noted by Dame Norma Restieaux, Dunedin cardiologist. Dame Norma also said that Professor Hunter made significant contributions to the Otago-Southland region, to New Zealand and to international medicine.

Born in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1925, John Desmond Hunter (known to many as "JD"), was the son of New Zealanders who returned home. His mother died in 1931. John and his brother then spent four years at the Salvation Army Boys' Home in Eltham and two years at the Wesley Home in Auckland before an uncle sent them to King’s College. Here Professor Hunter made his way with determination and, after a senior pupil had taught him how to box, he did not lose a bout in more than two years. He was very proud of his boxing medal, which he won when he weighed less than 6.5 stone.

Professor Hunter began his medical studies in Dunedin. His lifelong passion for cardiology was sparked after he graduated top of his class in 1948 and spent three years in Auckland, where he was seconded to a cardiology course at Green Lane Hospital. In 1950, he married a graduate in music and English, Heather Cornish, whom he had met while studying. In 1952, he and his wife went to England so that he could continue his cardiological studies by working at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School and the National Heart Hospital in London. At the time, London was the Mecca of cardiology. Professor Hunter became proficient in the new technique of cardiac catheterization and he also assessed and managed patients after cardiac surgery, then a relatively new specialty. As his cardiological skills were developing, so was his family. The Hunters had three children while living in England and another two on returning to New Zealand.

In 1956, John Hunter was appointed as a lecturer at the Otago Medical School. He went on to become a Senior Lecturer and then Mary Glendining Professor of Medicine from 1962 to 1993. He used his cardiological skills and knowledge for the benefit of patients in the south. He founded the Cardiology Department of the Otago District Health Board and developed one of the country's first coronary care units, with cardiac catheterization established as an investigative tool.

Professor Hunter was also behind the development of cardiac surgery in the South Island, based in Dunedin. The then Prime Minister, Keith Holyoake, had said cardiac surgery would be approved for Dunedin, if it could be justified by the caseload. A Cabinet paper was prepared and approval given but, both before and after, debate raged about whether there should have been a cardiac surgery unit in Christchurch instead. Professor Hunter said that cardiac surgery rapidly "became a situation with political overtones". Many people probably did not realize he had obtained verbal support from Christchurch medical professionals for cardiac surgery in Dunedin, before 1970.

Professor Hunter's research interests included much pioneering work in New Zealand on lipids and his 1961 paper on the role of cholesterol in coronary heart disease was the first in the country on this topic. He also supported research by helping develop the Cardiac Society of Australia and New Zealand. As President of the Society (1976-78), he was only the second New Zealand cardiologist to hold the position. Professor Hunter was made a life member of the Society in 1985. He was also made a life member of the National Heart Foundation in 1989. Professor Hunter had helped set up the Foundation in 1968 and he was Chairman of its scientific committee from 1985 to 1989.

In 1974, Professor Hunter was appointed Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at Otago. At the time the Medical School was facing funding problems because the State failed to recognize that technology was making medicine increasingly specialized and expensive. He used his characteristic determination and vision to be among those battling the country’s then sole medical faculty into the modern era. He also fostered friendships with graduates gaining vital specialist knowledge overseas, including Dame Norma Restieaux, Professor Pat Molloy, a cardiac surgeon and Professor David Stewart. He persuaded them to return and then did his utmost to ensure his promises to them were kept. Professor Stewart credits the contribution of Professor Hunter, and of others, to the modernization of the Otago Medical School as the reason why it has retained its fine international reputation. Professor Hunter was also "a delightful person and great company. He was straight and honest as well:" "You always knew where you were", said Professor Stewart. "Nothing ever happened behind your back. If you had an argument, it came out and you had it out and that was that”.

Professor Hunter's interest in continuing medical education led to him becoming chairman of a committee in this field in the Royal Australasian College of Physicians. He was subsequently appointed the College's full-time Director of Continuing Education and was based in Sydney from 1978-1981. His many contributions led to his award in 1988 by the College of its medal for outstanding services.

In 1982, Professor Hunter returned to New Zealand as Dean of the Christchurch School of Medicine. He was reappointed Dean of the Faculty of Medicine in 1986 and from 1988 until his retirement in 1991, he was Assistant Vice-Chancellor, Health Sciences. For his extensive contribution to medicine and society in Otago and New Zealand, Professor Hunter was awarded the CBE in 1992.

In 1975, Professor Hunter and John Borrie were prime movers in founding the Alumnus Association of the Otago Medical School in its centennial year. During his retirement, John Hunter became Archivist to the Faculty and collected many documents of historical importance before ill-health forced his resignation only six months before his death. Professor Hunter was undoubtedly an inspiration to others and Dame Norma Restieaux says that "his name will be clearly written in the history of New Zealand medicine".

Professor Hunter is survived by his children, Andrew, Christine, Michael, Timothy and Caroline.

Bulletin 27, 2004/2005