Lives of the fellows

Wilfrid Percy Henry (Sir) Sheldon

b.23 November 1901 d.9 September 1983
KCVO(1959) CVO(1954) MRCS LRCP(1923) MB BS Lond(1924) MRCP(1925) FRCP(1933) MMSA(1972) Hon FRCOG(1972)

Sir Wilfrid Sheldon was an outstanding personality in the history of paediatrics in this country. In many ways he represented a link between the beginnings of paediatrics as a branch of medicine and the modern era of paediatrics which really began in the late 1960s.

He succeeded, at King’s College Hospital, Sir George Frederic Still, who was the first professor of child health in Britain. Still gave up his chair in 1916 when London University ‘took over’ the London medical schools. At that time Still was offered retention of his chair but as this involved relinquishing the right to private practice Still, who had no private income, was forced to abandon his professorship.

Sheldon, who had qualified at King’s College Hospital in 1924, was appointed consultant at King’s College Hospital in 1926. Even in those days, this was a very young age to be appointed consultant and a few years later Sir Wilfrid was appointed as consultant physician to the Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street.

Wilfrid Sheldon’s early life was complicated by the death of his parents when he was quite a young boy and he was supported through school and his medical education by an elder brother (J Harold Sheldon FRCP) who, it is fair to say, was worshipped by the younger Wilfrid. He quickly showed himself to be an outstanding clinician and produced one of the first major textbooks of paediatrics entitled Diseases of Children which was based, in the early editions, very largely on his own wide clinical experience.

He became the outstanding young physician at the Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street, and on the retirement of Still he took over the directorship of the department of child health at King’s.

Sheldon was a tall, slim, aristocratic looking figure. A pleasant face when smiling, he could look extremely stern when displeased. When in critical mood, his eyes had the appearance almost of being ‘hooded’ and gave him a ‘hawk-like’ appearance which disappeared as soon as his sense of humour, which could be ebullient, forced its way into the situation. He was a very handsome man and was a great socialite, having a fund of stories and a great ability as a conversationalist.

During the second world war, he was largely responsible for organizing the care of sick children transferred from Great Ormond Street to the country branch at Tadworth.

His research interest in medicine was very largely devoted to coeliac disease, in which his powers of clinical observation were responsible for him being one of the first paediatricians to realize that coeliac disease was due to an intolerance of wheat products. His interest in coeliac diseae brought him international fame but he was also famed in his own country for his teaching ability to students in general, and by his ability to impart to his assistants the clinical acumen that he had collected over the years.

He became paediatrician to Her Majesty The Queen at a time when she first became a young mother and was very personally known to the Queen Mother, as well as to the Queen herself. He became a ‘father figure’ in British paediatrics and was a very popular president of the British Paediatric Association.

His two great hobbies were gardening and golf. In the first he was a great expert and created a wonderful garden around his home on Kingston Hill. At golf he was less of an expert but was a great humourist who enjoyed not only the game, but the companions with whom he played it.

Right to the end he retained his great critical faculties and his deep love of his family was accompanied by a very deep affection for his friends. He ultimately died due to secondary carcinoma in the liver from a primary in the colon. It was typical of him that he himself made the clinical diagnosis of both his primary carcinoma and the occurrence of the secondary deposits, many years later, in the liver. In the six weeks or so before his death he visited all his friends to say ‘goodbye’ to them and at that time he said that he felt that he had been blessed with a very happy life and happy family, and his only regret was that he was unable to look after his wife, Maithe, who herself was ill, and that his death would leave her without him. Above all, he will be remembered as a kind, gentle man, with an ability to be critical and forceful, a great teacher, and a man who loved his family and his friends.

CE Stroud

[Brit.med.J., 1983, 287, 918, 992, 1146; Lancet, 1983, 2, 749; Times, 14 & 21 Sept 1983]

(Volume VII, page 531)

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