Richard Huntsman was a trail-blazing physician, an award-winning teacher, an ocean-crossing sailor – a true polymath who is credited with saving lives by safeguarding Newfoundland and Labrador’s blood supplies at a critical time.
Possessed of wildly diverse interests, he conducted two protracted trans-Saharan expeditions to hunt for variant hemoglobin in Tuaregs and other resident tribes, and also studied racehorses, hibernating bears and blood clotting in frogs.
Dr. Huntsman died March 7 in Taverham, Norfolk, two days after his 88th birthday.
“He was exceptional,” said Ian Landells, who studied hematology with him at Memorial University of Newfoundland. “He had a way of taking something complicated and distilling it down, and he would also make it incredibly funny. And he was the most eccentric teacher I’ve ever had; he would have the class rolling with laughter, between pinches of snuff. He had this dry, sharp wit, but it made us more interested, it drew us in.”
He was also principled and outspoken. Dr. Huntsman was director of blood transfusion services with the Red Cross in St. John’s in the 1980s when thousands of Canadians became infected with HIV and hepatitis. Out of concern for public safety, his office went against national directives that he felt were not sufficiently stringent. Dr. Huntsman’s position was vindicated when those directives came under harsh criticism by Justice Horace Krever’s Royal Commission of Inquiry on the Blood System in Canada.
“The tainted blood tragedy was a massive and deadly institutional failure but there were also some small acts of heroism that didn’t get recognized,” Globe and Mail public health reporter André Picard wrote in an e-mail. Mr. Picard is also author of The Gift of Death, a book about the tainted-blood scandal. “On a number of occasions, Dr. Huntsman took actions in defiance of Red Cross policy that prevented infections and saved lives. He was a model of professionalism and common sense and, had there been more like him, the ravages of tainted blood would have been much less horrific.”
For instance, Mr. Picard explained in the e-mail, “in the early 1980s, he struck a deal with the Gay Association of Newfoundland and Labrador so gay men would voluntarily refrain from blood donation until the source of infection was identified [the AIDS virus was pinpointed in 1984]. ‘We struck a bargain; they would not donate if we did not discriminate,’ he said at the time. Also, when the Red Cross was dithering about the cost of heat-treated blood products for hemophilia, he simply ordered them. He also refused to use up stocks of non-heat-treated products. As a result very few hemophiliacs were infected in Newfoundland.” As well, Dr. Huntsman was one of the few former Red Cross directors who openly agreed that the Red Cross Blood Transfusion Service should be shut down and a new agency created, Mr. Picard wrote.
“That really demonstrated his integrity,” Dr. Landells said. “He always did what he believed was the right thing. The people of Newfoundland and Labrador were protected much more than anybody else because of him.”
Richard George Huntsman was born March 5, 1927, in Perak, Malaya (now Malaysia), the third child of George and Mary (née Price). George was a veteran of the First World War and an adventurous person; after the war he took up running a rubber plantation. Mary took the children to England for school when Richard was very small, although he did retain one artifact of his time there: a photograph of himself at the age of 3 in a pith helmet petting an elephant that he had received as a birthday gift.
Young Richard excelled as a student, earning a scholarship to Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where he read natural sciences. He went on to do clinical studies at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, graduating in medicine in 1951.
Following a term as house physician and two years of National Service, he returned to St. Bartholomew’s in 1955 as a registrar in pathology. There he met Hermann Lehmann, a German-trained physician and biochemist whose research in molecular anthropology attracted a keen and dynamic group of young research fellows, Dr. Huntsman among them.
Dr. Huntsman was awarded the gold medal for his MD thesis on novel variants of human hemoglobin. Among other research he helped open the new field of human molecular genetics, revealing the constant variations in the human genome and the universality of the genetic code, and was an expert on sickle cell anemia, for which he invented the standard lab test. He also co-authored, with Dr. Lehmann, Man’s Hemoglobin, a standard textbook.
Despite these achievements, he was restless. He had married Elaine Constance Deakin in 1955, and by the mid-1970s they had eight children. With academic salaries frozen and Dr. Huntsman sensing his independent mind was not a good fit for NHS promotion, emigration seemed the answer. In 1975 the Huntsmans left from Heathrow en route to St. John’s. Their exodus was documented by London’s Daily Telegraph (under the headline “Another family down the brain drain”).
In St. John’s he worked as a professor with the faculty of medicine at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Popular and respected, a “beloved maverick,” according to a St. John’s Telegram headline, he was awarded the Silver Orator Award four times in his 15 years of teaching. He was the first teacher to win more than once.
His duties with the Red Cross saw him visit every community in Newfoundland with a blood supply, and he so loved the south coast outports, accessible only by boat, that for a time he wanted to move to Grey River. But his wife felt that the Huntsmans had been nomadic enough.
Not that he stayed still. In the late 1970s and mid-1980s, he made two transatlantic crossings in a small converted North Sea fishing boat, The Lady of Lynn, built by England’s famous Worfolk boatmakers. “It was like a Weeble,” said his son, David Huntsman, who also became a doctor. “It would rock back and forth and up and down, but it wouldn’t sink.”
When he was not on the water, Dr. Huntsman had a wide range of personal pursuits: He might on a whim purchase a trombone, or a tandem bicycle, and learn to use either, along with teaching his family. He taught all his children to read before they started school, and taught himself Arabic (he loved the Middle Eastern climate and culture).
CBC’s St. John’s Morning Show would call him to discuss medical issues, but also just to chat, because he was interesting. CBC’s national radio host Peter Gzowski interviewed him about snuff taking.
“He had a quirky kind of curiosity that shot his mind off in many directions,” David said. “As opposed to the more focused direction underpinning many academic careers.”
Dr. Huntsman could also be testy and was thought not to suffer fools gladly, but that was not quite the case. It was airs and ostentation he had no time for, institutional or otherwise. He was anti-establishment and would clash, for example, with the dean of medicine. But he could be an incredibly kind and generous individual, though he kept his philanthropy very quiet. For example, his family only recently learned that after one of his trainees, George Yawson, died after returning to Ghana in the early 1970s, he paid for Dr. Yawson’s four children to go to school and then university in Britain.
After retiring, Dr. Huntsman and his wife moved to their holiday cottage, Australind, in the small English village of Brancaster Staithe on the North Norfolk coast. He continued to sail, researched nursing during the Crimean War, watched cricket and rugby games, and grew lemon trees and asparagus.
Dr. Huntsman’s family said he died of pneumonia, and he also suffered from vascular dementia. He leaves his wife, Elaine; children, Jennifer, Alice, Rachel, David, Lucy, Tim, Philippa and Richard; and sister, Mary.
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