Lives of the fellows

Wilton Ernest Henley

b.28 May 1907 d.9 October 1981
CBE(1967) MBE(1946) BA Oxon(1932) BM BCh(1935) MRACP(1941) DM MA(1945) MRCP(1946) FRACP(1951) FRCP(1960) Hon LLD Auckland(1972)

Wilton Ernest Henley was born at Napier, the son of Dr EAW Henley who died while Wilton was still a boy. He was educated in Napier and at Wanganui Collegiate, where his prowess in rugby became evident and he later played for the Hawkes Bay team. In the first year of his medical course at the University of Otago he was selected as a Rhodes scholar. Henley continued his medical course at the University of Oxford and went to St Mary’s Hospital, London, for his clinical years, qualifying in 1935. After a period as house officer at St Mary’s Hospital he became a Radcliffe travelling fellow in 1937, and a Lady King scholar in 1939, gaining experience in general medicine.

Henley returned to New Zealand in 1940, and from then until 1944 was physician to the Waikato Hospital, Hamilton. Between 1944 and 1946 he was with the RNZAMC, first in Italy with the 2 NZEF, and then with the British Commonwealth Occupation Force in Japan, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel and being appointed MBE. After demobilization he had a period of refresher study in Britain.

On return to New Zealand he was appointed senior physician, first at Middlemore Hospital, Auckland, and then at Auckland Hospital. He became extensively involved in the work of the NZ Committee of the RACP, and he was sub-dean of the branch faculty at Auckland of the University of Otago Medical School 1956-1961. Indeed he became over-committed, and it was not too difficult for the Auckland Hospital Board to persuade him to become superintendent-in-chief in succession to Selwyn Kenrick in 1961. The potentialities of the position were immense, as it was likely that Auckland would eventually be given planning permission to have a medical school.

Henley was to be the right man in the right place, when finally at the end of 1964 the setting up of the medical school was authorized. He was given a year off by the board and seconded to work with the University Grants Committee and the various government departments concerned, planning in detail the new venture for which there were few national guidelines. Henley’s work in guiding the planning exercise, before the arrival of Cecil Lewis as dean in 1966, was an achievement of a very high order.

He had the necessary personal authority, both in Auckland and with the government, to carry this towards a successful launching. It was fitting that the School of Medicine was subsequently to name a lecture theatre after him as it did to its other founding fathers, Sir Douglas Robb and Cecil Lewis.

Wilton Henley married Wilhelmina Muriel Jean Barns-Graham in 1936 and she survived him, as did two sons who are doctors and a daughter.

Henley was a first rate sportsman all his life. As a student he was a rugby blue at Oxford University and St Mary’s Hospital, and he played in an Irish trial. He was an outstanding place-kicker; his interest in the game never waned and he followed the All Blacks with critical enthusiasm to the end. Also he was a first-rate golfer and was an excellent fisherman.

Wilton Henley was known to friends and colleagues as ‘Chook’. He was a spare man with a commanding presence, treating all with the utmost courtesy. He was a doctor in the great clinical tradition, being meticulous in history-taking and physical examination, and his astute comments at grand rounds were legendary. Every patient and the relatives received the greatest consideration, and he came to stress the advantages of physical contacts and the healing power of simply laying on hands. He had little bent for research; but he was early in the field of special care for over-weight babies of diabetic mothers whose control he managed in a special clinic at the National Women’s Hospital, with results that were ahead of the times.

Henley retired in 1973, and he returned to the clinical field when he became a senior medical officer in the Kingseat annexe to Raventhorpe Hospital. This is the long term psychiatric block, and he was able to bring his clinical talents to bear so that cases were adequately characterized, and many seemingly hopeless cases recovered to return to the community. Active to the end he was stricken with a massive stroke, with a gross aphasia. With characteristic fortitude he declined any attempts at treatment and he died after a fortnight’s illness.

Henley shone in committees, where his comments were always succinct and would usually bring a tedious discussion to a quick decision. As a chairman he was superb; the meeting began precisely on time and he had mastered the agenda before the meeting.

As Dr Michael Gilmour said at the service in St Mark’s Church, Remuera on 13 October: ‘An obligation a Rhodes scholar accepts is "to esteem the performance of public duty as the highest aim’". Wilton Henley surely obliged.

JL Newman
Sir Gordon Wolstenholme

[NZ Med. J., 24 Mar 1982, p.197; RACP College Newsletter, Dec 1981, 13, 3]

(Volume VII, page 256)

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