When Rob Buckman – Humanist, oncologist, and TV personality – realized he was dying from an autoimmune disease, he thought it would be useful to make a film to help others learn from his death. He was right about the value of the film: Your Own Worst Enemy was a great critical success and helped countless people address a topic that is taboo and yet unavoidable. But Rob was wrong about the subject of the film: thanks to a new treatment he survived another three decades after the 1981 movie. And those three decades were filled with the love, learning and laughter that made him a hugely popular figure on both sides of the Atlantic.
It was somewhere over the Atlantic that death finally caught up with Rob Buckman on October 9, 2011. He died in his sleep while flying back to Toronto after filming some health shows in London. He was 63. He is survived by his first wife, Joan van den Ende, and their two daughters, Joanna and Susie, and by his second wife, Pat Shaw, and their two sons, James and Matthew.
The attitude that led Rob to make Your Own Worst Enemy was typical of his life. He used his remarkable communication skills to share his medical expertise with the widest possible audience. But he was so much more than just an expert communicator: he laid bare his essential humanity, right down to the details of his own mortality, in order to help others find understanding and comfort. And these rare talents can be found throughout his life, intertwined in his vocations as physician, communicator and Humanist.
The 1994 Canadian Humanist of the Year, Rob was always eager to help the Humanist movement. For more than a decade, starting in 1999, he was a hands-on president of the Humanist Association of Canada. He also worked with the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) serving as Chairman of the Advisory Board for IHEU’s bio-ethics center at the United Nations. He made frequent trips from Toronto to New York City to help the bio-ethics center, speaking at the center’s conferences and contributing to UN briefings.
Rob grew up in London, and then went to St John’s College, Cambridge, where he graduated in medicine in 1972. At Cambridge he was a star in the famous Footlights troupe, which has featured so many of Britain’s leading comedians.
As a junior doctor at University College Hospital, London, he met Chris Beetles, and they teamed up as “Beetles and Buckman” to perform live comedy and revue. Rob wrote for the long-running satirical BBC Radio 4 show Week Ending, and for a TV sitcom, Doctor On the Go, based on Richard Gordon’s Doctor in the House books. In the 1980s, Rob went on to front a long-running TV medical series with Miriam Stoppard, Where There’s Life.
In 1985 Rob emigrated to Canada, working as an oncologist at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto, before moving to Toronto’s Princess Margaret Hospital. He also became a full professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of Toronto and adjunct professor at the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. He specialized in breast cancer and also in teaching communication skills in oncology to physicians and nurses.
In Canada, Rob continue his career presenting television science-and-medicine programmes. Magic or Medicine? his series on ‘alternative medicine’, won him a Gemini award (the Canadian TV Industry equivalent of an Emmy).
As well as writing a weekly column for the Toronto Globe and Mail, Rob wrote 15 books. Many of these aimed to help people deal with death and dying, including: How To Break Bad News: A Guide for Healthcare Professionals; What You Really Need To Know About Cancer: A Comprehensive Guide for Patients and their Families; Cancer is a Word, Not a Sentence: A Practical Guide to Help You Through the First Few Weeks; and I Don’t Know What To Say – How To Help And Support Someone Who Is Dying. His autobiography was titled Not Dead Yet. He also wrote a national best-seller exploring his Humanist philosophy: Can We Be Good Without God? Biology, Behavior and the Need to Believe.
In Twice Around the World and Still Stupid, Rob Buckman wrote, “To me, Humanism is what you are left with if you strip away what doesn’t make sense. I was always attracted by science, and the more I learned, the more I found that many established world-philosophies (particularly among some of the organized religions) didn’t make any form of intuitive sense. Undoubtedly they bring great comfort to their believers, but I found that I was unable to sincerely believe in any divine architecture to the cosmos, or in any predetermined destiny for any race or creed or even for any individual. From my teenage years onwards, I basically came to think that we humans are a most peculiar species huddled together in a rather uneven and random way on a rather pleasant planet, and it’s up to us to do our best. I have never felt that we can look for assistance elsewhere. What we see around us is what we’ve got. Now that might sound as if I am some sort of unemotional reductionist – a B. F. Skinner playing the role of doctor – but I know that I am not. Accepting a Humanist view of our world does not mean that you don’t feel love, anger, fright, tenderness – or even humour. A Humanist basis simply allows you to spend less of your time twisting what you see and contorting it to fit somebody else’s idea of what ought to be. Of course I could be wrong: but if I am I don’t think I shall have done all that much damage on the way – on average, Humanists don’t.”