Lives of the fellows

Owen Lambert Vaughan Simpkinson de Wesselow

b.21 October 1883 d.6 July 1959
BA Oxon(1905) BM ChB Oxon(1908) DM Oxon(1932) MRCP(1912) FRCP(1922)

Owen de Wesselow was born at Blackheath Hill. He was the elder son of the Rev. Charles Hare Simpkinson, M.A. (Oxon.,) (who later changed his name by deed poll to de Wesselow), sometime rector of Stoke-on-Trent, and Henrietta Lucy, daughter of Robert Owen White. On his father’s side Owen de Wesselow was a descendant of the Vaughans and exemplified the hereditary genius of that family, which has produced several eminent members of the medical profession including Sir Henry Halford, Bart., G.C.H., P.R.C.P., and his brother, Sir Charles Vaughan, G.C.H., B.M. (Oxon.), fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to the United States of America.

Owen de Wesselow was educated at Haileybury College, at which he held a classical scholarship, and where Lord Attlee, the future Prime Minister, was his friend and contemporary. He became a member of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, in 1901 and obtained a first class in the final honour school of physiology in 1905. He then entered St. Thomas’s Hospital Medical School with a university scholarship and graduated B.M., B.Ch. (Oxon.), in 1908.

At his hospital he was house physician to Sir Seymour Sharkey and, subsequently, resident assistant physician and medical registrar. After post-graduate study at the Salpetriere Hospital, Paris, he was for a short time a resident medical officer at King Edward VII Sanatorium, Midhurst, and then began biomedical research at the Lister Institute; this was interrupted by the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.

De Wesselow immediately joined the R.A.M.C, with the temporary rank of captain and served in the trenches in France with a battalion of the Worcester Regiment, being wounded and mentioned in dispatches. From 1917 to the end of the war he did research work on trench nephritis with Hugh MacLean in the laboratory at Etaples and elsewhere under the Trench Nephritis Committee. This work proved the essential value of renal efficiency tests, and was embodied in a Special Report (No. 43,1919) of the Medical Research Committee. In 1920 de Wesselow and MacLean published their famous paper on the urea concentration test, a new test of renal efficiency based largely on their war experience {Brit. J. exp. Path., 1920, 1, 53-65).

After the war de Wesselow was appointed assistant physician and chemical pathologist to St. Thomas’s Hospital and physician to the General Lying-In Hospital, York Road, London. Here he investigated the toxaemias of pregnancy and published several papers on his biochemical findings. De Wesselow and MacLean also studied the use of the blood sugar method. They established its clinical value and made the glucose tolerance test a diagnostic test for diabetes; they showed also that levulose did not raise the blood sugar. After this de Wesselow pursued extensive researches in the chemical analysis of disease. He studied chloride metabolism in many conditions, the blood calcium and phosphorus levels in lactation and renal disease, and other inorganic constituents of the blood.

His work in chemical pathology was subsequently extended in collaboration with W. J. Griffiths. Beginning in 1933 they sought for possible pressor bodies in hypertension and later worked anew on carbohydrate metabolism. In 1936 they suggested a multiple origin for diabetes, and discussed the possible part taken by the anterior pituitary in its pathogenesis.

In 1933 de Wesselow succeeded MacLean as director of the medical unit, St. Thomas’s Hospital, physician to the Hospital and professor of medicine in the University of London. He examined in medicine for the Universities of Oxford and London and the Conjoint Board. For some years he was secretary to the Child Life Committee of the Medical Research Council. He was consulting physician to the Board of Control, a member of the Ministry of Health’s departmental committee on maternal mortality (1928-32), and of the Ministry’s nutrition committee (1936-9).

He delivered the Croonian lectures on arterial hypertension to the College in 1934, and was Councillor and examiner to the College. For many years he was a member of the British Pharmacopoeia Commission, a member of the Association of Physicians and editor of the Quarterly Journal of Medicine.

On the outbreak of the Second World War de Wesselow unselfishly took the administrative post of sector hospital officer (Surrey) in the Emergency Medical Service, and also continued to visit and teach at Hydestile, Godalming, to which St. Thomas’s Hospital had been largely evacuated. In 1948 he retired with the title of emeritus professor and was also appointed consulting physician to St. Thomas’s Hospital.

He resided at Goodworth Clatford, near Andover, and then moved to Winchester where he took an active part in local affairs and in the preservation of ancient buildings. He died in St. Thomas’s Hospital on 6th July 1959 after a month’s illness which he bore with characteristic fortitude.

De Wesselow was a kindly, friendly, generous and likeable man of great integrity, much admired by his colleagues, patients and students. He had many interests and activities, including mountain-climbing in Switzerland and the Lake District, archaeology and entomology. His collection of chalk hill blue butterflies was well-known. He was a keen gardener and was interested in first editions and old silver. Although modest and unassuming, he could on occasion express his views forcibly and with pungent wit and humour.

In 1918 he married Margaret Elizabeth Maria, youngest daughter of Sir Charles Craufurd, Bart. By her he had one son, Sqdn-Ldr C. P. C. de Wesselow, D.S.O., D.F.C. She died in 1948, and in 1952 he married Mrs Barbara Barratt, daughter of Lt-Cdr H. Chamberlain, R.N.

Richard R Trail

[, 1959, 2, 126-7; J.Path.Bact., 1960, 80, 189-95 (p), bibl.; Lancet, 1959, 2, 66; St. Thom. Hosp. Gaz., 1959, 57, 121-4 (p); Times, 8 July 1959.]

(Volume V, page 101)

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