Ekkehard von Kuenssberg

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Ekkehard von Kuenssberg MB ChB CBE PRCPG FRCOG FRCP (born Heidelberg, 17 December 1913 - died Edinburgh, 27 December 2000), was a German-born pioneering Scottish medical doctor. A founder and president of the Royal College of General Practitioners, he was the co-signatory of a letter to the British Medical Journal from GP's who had spotted early signs of the effects of Thalidomide.

On announcement of his death, Sir Donald Irvine, president of the General Medical Council, said:[1]


Von Künßberg is an old German family, with roots back to the mid-12th century, (mentioned as early as 1149 in several sources). Ekkehard's father was Dr. Professor Eberhard Georg Otto von Freiherr von Künßberg (1881–1941), of the Thurnau line of the family; a separate and distinct line from that of Eberhard Freiherr von Kuensberg, the leader of the Sonderkommando assigned to transport Russian artifacts for the German Foreign Office during World War II.[2]

Dr. Professor Eberhard von Künßberg was a renowned scholar in the history of German Law, a professor at the University of Heidelberg, a prominent legal linguist and a pioneer in the field of legal geography. From the death of Richard Schroeder in 1917 until von Künßberg's own death in 1941, he edited the Deutsche Rechtswoerterbuch. Künßberg married the Protestant raised Dr. Katharina Samson,[3] the daughter of wealthy cloth manufacturer Gustav Samson, and Anna Goldschmidt, the fourth daughter of Jewish parents Hermann and Rosalie Goldschmidt.[2]


Ekkehard von Kuenssberg was born in 1913, one of five children born to law professor Dr. Eberhard Freiherr and biologist Dr. Katharina Freifrau von Künßberg.[4]


Educated at Schule Schloss Salem where he became head boy, he then studied science at Innsbruck University from 1930. Using his skiing skills, by night he would assist the escape of Jews across the Austrian mountains, who were being persecuted out of Germany by the rising Nazi regime.[3]

Wishing to continuing his studies onward to become a medical doctor, in 1933 his mother concluded it was unsafe for her children in Germany, and so sent all five of them to England. Ekkehard arrived in the university city of Cambridge, where he became a laboratory technician.[3] Still wishing to become a doctor, he wrote to the Dean of every British medical school. After gaining only one positive reply from Sidney Smith of the University of Edinburgh, he travelled there by bus, and was offered a place immediately, exempt from paying university fees.[3] During his studies he gained a blue for Field hockey, founded the university ski club, and was a co-founder of the yacht club.[4]

World War II[edit]

On graduation in 1939, his alien status restricted both his ability to travel and to practise medicine. In May 1940 at the height of the Battle of Britain he was interned for eighteen months in Liverpool and Isle of Man.[1] On release, he returned to Edinburgh and became a locum in the industrial district of Granton, in the practise of Dr Charles E. Munro who was on war service.[4] Trained in midwifery at medical school, due to a shortage of nurses in the first six months of service he undertook 36 births.[4]

In 1944, he was allowed to fulfil a desire to join the British Army, where he was commissioned as a subaltern in the Royal Army Medical Corps. At the end of the war in Germany, he was assigned to Heidelberg, where he interviewed the surgeon who had operated on the cancerous stomach ulcer of his father, an acknowledged conscientious objector who died during the relatively simple operation.[2] His mother survived the war hidden in her house, thanks to her house keeper and the efforts of friends.[2] In 1947, Kuenssberg was demobbed as a Lieutenant Colonel, having been assistant director of hygiene in East Africa.[4]

Medical career[edit]

He returned to Granton in 1946, and went into partnership with Charles Munro.[4] In the next 25 years, the practise developed into new premises, and by the time of his retirement in 1981 had nine partners.[4]

Von Kuenssberg and Munro after World War II were at the centre of a changing medical system. The wartime Beveridge Report was accepted in February 1943, and after a White Paper in 1944 it fell to Clement Attlee's Labour government to create the National Health Service as part of the "cradle to grave" welfare-state reforms. Secretary of State for Health Aneurin Bevan drove through parliament the National Health Service Act 1946, which came into effect on 5 July 1948.

While pre-war the GPs had been underfunded, the new NHS funded and equipped the new hospitals, but left the GPs distant from the diagnostic tools and ancillary help of the hospital. Von Kuenssberg and Munro established one of the first group practices, an innovative "co-operative" that linked Granton, Pilton and Muirhouse.[1] Vone Kuenssberg later became chairman of the Scottish General Medical Services Committee of the British Medical Association, and began to press with the chairman in England, Northern Ireland and Wales for reform. The result of two years of negotiation as part of a team of four in London with Minister of Health Kenneth Robinson, was the GP Charter.[4] For his work and efforts, Von Kuenssberg was awarded the CBE in 1969.[3]

Von Kuenssberg was a co-founder of the Royal College of General Practitioners. He was later a fellow, chairman of council; and finally president between 1976 and 1979.[3] In his role he travelled the world to bring expertise to developing countries, and harmonise best global medical learning and practises. During the introduction of the contraceptive pill, the college council doubted its ability to complete a successful trial. Using debate and diplomacy, Von Kuenssberg persuaded his colleagues to go ahead with what remains today the biggest survey of the health of women taking the contraceptive pill, which continues to be quoted today.[4] In 1974, he founded and chaired the European General Practice Research Workshop, promoting Europe-wide research.[1]

In a letter to the British Medical Journal The Lancet in 1961, Von Kuenssberg with neurologists Dr. Simpson and Dr. Stanton of the Northern General Hospital, drew attention to some curious neurological disorders appearing in patients on thalidomide.[3] He was later invited to join the Dunlop committee, the only GP on the first committee on the safety of drugs.[4]

Von Kuenssberg set up a group composed of local councillors, ministers, social workers and those in the medical profession who serviced Gorton under the title of "The Care Committee," which considered the social problems of a deprived area, and suggested ways of dealing with them and co-ordinating efforts. He advised and was a member of the committee of the Queen's Nursing Institute, championing principles of community nursing could be propagated. On his retirement in 1981,[1] a QNI scholarship bearing his name was created.[4]

Personal life[edit]

On graduation from medical school at the University of Edinburgh in 1939, he married fellow doctor, Dr. Constance Hardy.[1][4] The couple had four children, two sons and two daughters. Their eldest son is well known Scottish businessman Professor Nick Kuenssberg OBE,[5] whose daughter is BBC Newsnight’s chief correspondent Laura Kuenssberg.[1]

After a long battle with Parkinson's disease and cancer,[1] he died in Haddington, East Lothian on 27 December 2000.[3][4] His obituary at the Royal College of Physicians states:[6]


  • 1939: MB ChB, Edinburgh
  • 1969: CBE
  • 1976-9: PRCPG
  • 1981: FRCOG, FRCP Edin


  1. ^ a b c d e f g "Terror to triumph in a lifetime". Evening News. 2000-12-30. Retrieved 2010-05-20. [dead link]
  2. ^ a b c d "Persecuted Jewish family of KÜNSBERG (or kindsberg?)". Axis History. Retrieved 2010-05-20. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h "Obituary, Ekkehard Von Kuenssberg" (PDF). rcpe.ac.uk. Retrieved 2010-05-20. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m "Ekkehard Von Kuenssberg". BMJ. Retrieved 2010-05-20. 
  5. ^ "Nick Kuenssberg". Debretts. Retrieved 2010-05-20. 
  6. ^ http://www.rcpe.ac.uk/journal/issue/vol31_no4/T_Obituaries.pdf