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Remembering Constance Hunter

A leading international activist and friend of Cuba who was also a respected general practitioner in Leeds has died, writes FRANCES HUNTER

DR CONSTANCE HUNTER (nee Wilton) passed away aged 86 in April. Born and raised in Heywood in Lancashire, she studied medicine at Leeds University in the 1950s.

As a teenager she went to post-war Europe with a group of young socialists, obtaining travel permits to visit areas that had seen some of the worst that fascism wrought. Travelling through France, Germany and Austria helped foster in her a life-long commitment to fight fascism, defend workers’ rights and help the disadvantaged however she could, professionally and privately.

After qualifying as a general practitioner, as a staunch believer in the new NHS, she knew the London medical schools were not for her when at an interview the professor’s face fell and he sneered at her reply when she was asked what she thought of the NHS.

She worked almost her whole career at a small GP practice in Chapeltown, a multicultural, inner-city community in Leeds.

She kept the surgery going despite battles with her local NHS trust when it was policy to amalgamate and form large multidoctor practices. She joined the Small Practices Association to defend small GP practices.

She faced difficulties, but felt it was important for the community and the many people who struggled to access care elsewhere.

Many of her patients became lifelong friends. She even visited them in St Kitts, Nevis, Jamaica and South Carolina when they had retired overseas.

In Chapeltown she was great friends with Diana Phillip from St Kitts, Leeds’s first black magistrate and a leading figure in the community and nationally.

She enjoyed the annual Leeds West Indian Carnival, which attracts 150,000 people and community projects such as the Mayflower club and children’s centre.

It was through these connections that she supported the establishment of the first rural diabetic clinic in Jamaica. She flew to Jamaica for its opening only to find it wasn’t quite ready and spent the first week painting and cleaning alongside the local volunteers.

Hunter was passionate about many causes including the Labour Party, CND, defeating the Cuba blockade and protecting the NHS. She was regularly seen raising money at jumble sales and fairs. At one of these she sold most of her record collection and gave the money to the cause.

She visited Cuba on several occasions, usually taking supplies of medicines — whenever pharmaceutical sales representatives visited her practice she enthusiastically accepted all samples offered and put them on one side for Cuba.

For the Cuba Solidarity Campaign she helped fill containers with medical, computing and education equipment to be sent to Cuba.

As a doctor she was required to undertake Continuing Professional Development (CPD) and while this would often be workshops and training on new procedures or treatments, she would also take fact-finding tours to Cuba and Russia, or visit the labour ward of a rural hospital in Jamaica.

Hunter was active during the 1984-5 miners’ strike against pit closures, raising funds and collecting and delivering food to pit communities through the Aireborough Miners’ Support Group in Leeds, making friends at Sharlston colliery, which was “twinned” with the group.

She was active in the local Labour Party until ill-health meant she could no longer attend meetings. From leafletting to organising, fundraising to challenging ministers and MPs on health and other issues, she was always well-informed and enjoyed getting her point across.

She campaigned against Menwith Hill, the United States intelligence-gathering base in Yorkshire, taking supplies and providing support to a long-standing peace camp outside the base.

She learned Spanish, Greek and Russian and visited Malta, Italy, Germany, Greece, the US, Belize, Canada, Russia and Norway, as well as travelling widely around the British Isles.

Wherever she went she wanted to meet and sit and chat with local people. As a young adult I would accompany her on these trips and they would often end by being invited by locals to dances, weddings, tavernas or to sit and relax with some home-made lemonade in a peasant widow’s back yard.

It was her interest in people that led to these encounters. On one occasion during a trip to the Falkland Islands she spent a whole afternoon chatting to an ex-marine and his Islander wife, finding common ground. All three wound up as friends and with great mutual respect, despite a very different outlook and upbringing. She had only gone to ask for some milk while staying at her self-catering cottage.

When she retired in 2014 it was her wish that the surgery building in Chapeltown would continue to serve the community and not be sold to a local developer to be turned into a car park for posh new flats. In conjunction with Dawn Lewis, plans were made to provide cheap office and meeting room space to enable local people to start up their own businesses. This legacy continues.

She will be remembered for her kindness, her commitment to many causes, her humour and generosity of spirit. She had a life well lived and will be sadly missed by her family, friends and comrades.

She was divorced and is survived by her three children — Frances, Stephen and David and six grandchildren — Bill, Kate, Jamie, Oscar, Olivia and Joshua.

Donations in her memory can be made to Medical and Scientific Aid for Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia — www.msavlc.org

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