Robert Buckman was a cancer specialist, TV personality and media and scientific polymath. He wrote 14 books dealing with cancer, health and death and hundreds of articles on similar subjects. In the Videos for Patients series, he co-starred in 45 episodes with John Cleese, of Monty Python fame. Just before he died, he had completed a series on medical education called Top Ten Tips, which he made with Terry Jones, another former Python man.
All of Buckman’s writings and TV performances were injected with a cheeky British sense of humour. He knew that medicine, in particular cancer medicine, scares the daylights out of patients and there is a sombre seriousness to things that he wanted to change.
Though he could appear at first glance as the medical version of an English music hall comedian, Buckman was in reality a serious research scientist and practising oncologist, who saw his mission in life as making medicine easy to digest. Not only was he a medical doctor, a specialist in both internal medicine and cancer, he was a PhD and a professor of medical oncology at the University of Toronto. He was still publishing papers, and was researching the effects of low-level chemotherapy at the time of his death.
“The idea behind low level chemotherapy was that the lower dose was easier on the patient,” said his wife, Patricia Shaw, who is also a pathologist and medical researcher. “He was a sincere, caring person.”
Robert Alexander Amiel Buckman was born in London in August of 1948 into an accomplished family. His third name is a reference to his mother’s family and his first cousin is Barbara Amiel, the journalist.
“His family were all serious intellectuals who were also very funny,” Shaw said.
Along with being a brilliant student, he was on the stage early in life. He was the Midshipman in Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore while he was still in the Canadian equivalent of high school. It wasn’t an amateur production but a professional performance at the Savoy Theatre in London’s West End.
While at Cambridge University he performed in Footlights, the famous theatrical troupe that spawned so many of Britain’s comedians. While he was a medical resident he teamed up with a fellow medical student Chris Beetles, and they formed a partnership doing standup comedy and eventually writing and performing in a TV sitcom called The Pink Medicine Show.
The serious side of Buckman won out over the theatrical side and he continued to study medicine, finally deciding to specialize in cancer.
“I became interested in cancer medicine in 1975. After completing my specialist training in internal medicine, I went to the Royal Marsden Hospital, where I trained in cancer medicine, including laboratory research leading to a doctorate,” he wrote several years ago.
It was around that time that Buckman started to link his theatrical ability with his medical knowledge. He appeared in a series of science programs on Yorkshire Television in Britain. By 1981 he was the co-host of a medical program called Where There’s Life. In the mid 1980s he came to Canada for a short trip and stayed.
“He made up his mind right away and wrote out his CV by hand,” Shaw said. “He was impressed by the Canadian medical system, especially what was being done with oncology in Toronto compared to Britain.”
Buckman worked as an oncologist at the Bayview Regional Cancer Centre, seeing patients and working as a medical researcher. A sensitive man in spite of his jocular exterior, he saw the heartbreak of cancer patients hearing the news they were going to die. It was hard on the patient, the family and the doctor.
“In the last few years, in my hospital and teaching practice, I have concentrated on various aspects of the doctor-patient relationship, particularly with respect to breaking bad news and providing supportive care for the dying and their families,” he said in an interview.
One video series he produced was called Why Won't They Talk to me? It was aimed at medical students and others who had to communicate bad news. He also wrote a book for the relatives and friends of someone who is dying called I Don't Know What to Say. Most of the titles of his books and programs told you in one line what you were going to read or hear, such as Cancer is A Word, Not a Sentence.
He would fly anywhere for medical conferences, and he was in demand as the opening speaker since he had the rare combination of knowledge and the ability to entertain. For many years he flew to Houston, where he was an adjunct professor of neuro-oncology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Clinic, ranked as the No. 1 cancer treatment centre in the United States.
For the past eight years he worked and did research at the Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto, where he was attached to the Campbell Family Institute for Breast Cancer Research.
Buckman’s main hobby was reading: fiction, history medicine. He loved books and had a collection of antiquarian books. One of his favourites was an edition of Dante’s Inferno illustrated by Gustav Doré. He also started an all men’s book club that included bankers, doctors and radio hosts, including Andy Barrie, the retired CBC broadcaster.
“Much more than a fellow male book clubber, Rob and I were among each others’ very best friends ever since we met almost 25 years ago,” Barrie said from his farm north of Toronto. “The man was so brilliantly wonderful at so many things – from being hysterically funny in telling a story to being stunningly supportive in guiding the confused and fearful through the labyrinth called cancer.”
“He had an extraordinary brain and knew so much about a wide range of topics because he was so well read. His retention was remarkable,” said Tom Healy, a retired banker, long-time friend and onetime member of the book club. “He had a wide range of friends from all walks of life. Many of his friends, including me, urged him to slow down. But he packed two lives into one.”
In one of his books, Buckman wrote about his own funeral.
“They’re going to play a recording of me saying, ‘Thank you so much for coming. Unlike the rest of you, I don’t have to get up in the morning.’ ”
For a man who wrote and spoke so much about death, his own death was rather dramatic, something he might have scripted into one of his health videos. He died quietly on Oct. 9 in Seat 8A in business class on the Air Canada Flight 859 from London. He was 63. He leaves his wife, Patricia, and their two children, as well as two children from a previous marriage.
Special to The Globe and Mail