Dorothy Cuninghame obituary

Other Lives: Secretary and housewife who gave medical help to displaced people in Germany after the second world war

My mother, Dorothy Cuninghame, who has died aged 100, was a secretary and housewife but also – as a nurse with the Quaker Friends Ambulance Unit in the second world war – a member of the generation of people who did so much to keep things going during that conflict.

Born in Letchworth, Hertfordshire, she was the daughter of William Stapleton, who worked in insurance, and his wife, Florence (nee Gazeley). The family were never well off, and Dorothy recalled the younger of her two sisters having her tonsils removed by the doctor at home on the kitchen table – a cheaper option than going into hospital.

Nonetheless she had a happy childhood in Letchworth, the world’s first garden city. Her parents’ Unitarianism and the alternative, socialist reputation of the town at the time influenced her views in later life.

Leaving Letchworth grammar school at 15, Dorothy moved into local office work, and, as a pacifist, decided to join the Quaker Friends Ambulance Unit when the second world war broke out, initially looking after evacuee children sent to the countryside to escape the German bombing.

Soon, though, she had become a nurse assistant working in hospitals around London’s docks, cycling to work in blackouts through bombed-out streets.

At the end of the war in 1945 she was sent as part of a small unit to Germany to provide medical aid to thousands of displaced people wandering around the country, spending much of her time helping to set up makeshift hospitals. While she was in Germany she met Garry Cuninghame, a British army major, and they married in 1948.

Settling down in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, Dorothy turned her attention to being a postwar wife and mother, while Garry worked as a nuclear scientist at the nearby Harwell laboratory.

After a time, however, she returned to secretarial duties, working until the early 1980s at Oxford University’s philosophy library, where she enjoyed rubbing shoulders with some of the country’s leading academics.

Outside work she had a deep interest in art, and was very knowledgable on the subject. She once spotted that some expert cleaning of The Hunt in the Forest, a Paolo Uccello painting held at the Ashmolean museum in Oxford, had inadvertently removed a faint crescent moon from the centre of the artist’s night sky.

After a period of prolonged haranguing from Dorothy, which may or may not have made a difference, the museum decided to reinstate that lunar detail.

Garry died in 2012, after which Dorothy moved to The Martins, a home in Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk. She is survived by her two sons, me and Alastair, and granddaughter Helen.

Christopher Cuninghame

The GuardianTramp

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