Former lead physician to the Queen and Royal Free professor knighted

10:00 02 August 2014

Professor Sir John Cunningham was knighted in a private ceremony at Buckingham Palace after serving as physician to the Queen for nine years. Picture: David Bishop

Professor Sir John Cunningham was knighted in a private ceremony at Buckingham Palace after serving as physician to the Queen for nine years. Picture: David Bishop


A professor at the Royal Free who served as the lead physician to the Queen and Royal Family has told of his “surprise and delight” after receiving a knighthood for “distinguished personal service to the Queen”.

Professor Sir John Cunningham, a consultant nephrologist at the hospital in Pond Street, Hampstead, was knighted in a private ceremony at Buckingham Palace earlier this month.

Retiring from his Royal duties this year, Sir John was head of the medical household and personal physician to the Queen for nine years. He served the Royal Family during a period that saw the death of the Queen Mother and the birth of Prince George.

Gaining an insight into the family’s life that few would ever have, Sir John said serving the Royals was “a real delight” throughout.

“I had no idea it was coming so was quite taken aback when I was told,” he told the Ham&High.

“I am so honoured – the experience has been a pleasure throughout. I was very taken aback when I was first appointed to the role and there was a mixture of trepidation and excitement.

“But I remember the first Royal I met was the Queen Mother, about three years before her death.

“She was so apologetic that she had disturbed my weekend and her manner immediately won me over. It was a great introduction to the family.”

Sir John led an extensive medical team that serves members of the Royal Family wherever they are, and previously served as the “number two” to the lead physician for 10 years.

A number of GPs dotted around the UK are selected to serve in the Medical Household, including in Balmoral, Sandringham, Edinburgh and Windsor.

A team of consultants and surgeons are also on hand while medical officers of the armed forces usually accompany the Royals when they make trips abroad.

The Queen chooses who will serve on her team, but the 
decision is often made on the advice of Sir John.

“You don’t apply for these roles – you’re chosen,” he said. “And it’s completely unpaid, I might add.

“But part of why most people say ‘yes’ is because they see it as a duty to serve their country.

“You also say ‘yes’ because you’re curious – you want to see what members of the Royal Family are really like. And while at times the pressure can be quite high when the world’s eyes are on you, in the end you treat them like any other patient.

“It’s easy for people to forget, but they are just people.”

Strict patient confidentiality means the more intimate details of the Royal Family will stay with Sir John to his death.

But information already in the public domain shows some of his final duties, included seeing the Queen through a nasty stomach bug just over a year ago, overseeing emergency surgery on Prince Philip and being present at the delivery of Prince George.

Retiring at the age of 65 is a “tradition” in the medical household, but Sir John will continue his work as a nephrologist – an expert in kidney function – at the Royal Free, where three clinicians also serve in the Household.

An active researcher, he has had over 100 papers published in peer reviewed journals and sits on 
national and international medical advisory boards.


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