Lives of the fellows

Robert Ford Whelan

b.22 December 1922 d.21 November 1984
MB BCh BAO(1946) MD(1951) PhD(1955) MD(Ad Eundem) Adelaide(1958) DSc Belf(1960) FRACP(1963) FAA(1966) FACE(1974) *FRCP(1980)

Bob Whelan inherited from his father, a civil servant in Northern Ireland, a rigorous self-discipline and an administrative ability of a high order. In his youth it was the open-air that called him. He became a scoutmaster and organized camping and canoe trips almost as if they were antarctic expeditions. His troop had to remain on Lough Neagh in all weathers because that was what the timetable indicated, and when ashore modern means of lighting fires were scorned. Whelan had intended to enter the Civil Service, but in 1941 he became a medical student at Queen’s. He graduated in 1946, and after being resident medical officer at Belfast City Hospital spent a year as a ship’s surgeon with the Holt Line.

Fired with enthusiasm for physiology by Henry Barcroft, he joined the department of physiology at Queen’s. There he was one of a group of talented young men and he, Shepherd, Roddie, Shanks and Love, under the leadership of David Greenfield, investigated the control of the peripheral circulation in man. Their experiments, often on themselves, demanded steady nerves and a high level of mutual trust. How else could men breathe 30% CO2, or investigate the effect of strong emotion on skin blood flow by telling the head of department - while he was on a couch with a plethysmograph on his arm in a waterbath - Don’t worry. Everything is all right. There’s been a fire in your house, but it’s out now. Everything is all right, just lie still’.

Whelan’s work earned him an MD and a research fellowship with Henry Barcroft at St Thomas’s Hospital Medical School in 1951. In that year he married Helen Elizabeth MacDonald Hepburn and they returned to Belfast where he was appointed lecturer in physiology in 1952, and presented his thesis for the PhD in 1955. His work on neurotransmitters, and on chemical agents that modify blood flow to the skin and muscles, was widely recognized as outstanding, and in 1958 he was appointed to the chair of physiology and pharmacology at the University of Adelaide. When he arrived the department was languishing, but despite the poor facilities, he organized on-going experimental work within a month of his arrival and his infectious enthusiasm attracted many able graduates to his discipline. The department was soon identified as a major centre of cardiovascular research. Whelan was awarded a Carnegie travelling fellowship in the USA in 1962, and in 1967 he published his authoritative monograph on The control of the peripheral blood flow in man, Springfield, III., Thomas.

Besides leading his research team, he was a fine teacher. He firmly believed that undergraduates were being taught so much that they did not have time to learn. He therefore concentrated his teaching in the laboratories, for he was convinced that the main contribution physiology should make to medical education was to teach young men to observe and record accurately. They needed to learn that it was what they found that mattered, not what they believed they ought to find.

He was elected dean of the medical school in 1966, was on the board of directors of the Eliza and Walter Hall Institute for Medical Research, and was an inaugural member of the drug evaluation committee of the Commonwealth Department of Health. He played a major part in the establishment of the Australian Physiological and Pharmacological Society, and of the Australasian Society of Clinical and Experimental Pharmacologists.

His administrative talent was widely recognized and in 1971 he was appointed vice-chancellor of the University of Western Australia. For this office he had just the right temperament, and he and Betty made a great impression on the staff and students. Bob gave the university firm and wise leadership at a time when it was expanding and developing rapidly. He was elected a member and was later on the council of the Australian Academy, and he played an important advisory role in the development of the Flinders University of South Australia.

These were happy years for Bob, Betty and the children - two boys and a girl - and he may have needed some persuasion to return to Britain in 1977 to become vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool. The move was a great success both for the Whelans and for the University. On his return he had to pass the driving test but this was achieved under the tuition of Mr Apter, the university chauffeur, -‘You are meant to hold the steering wheel with both hands, Vice-Chancellor’.

It was not an easy time to be a vice-chancellor, for there was retrenchment of the government’s funding of the UGC. But Whelan thrived on it. He was not a man to be confined in a vice-chancellor’s office. He visited departments. Staff were invited to his home. He was always accessible to students. Secretaries, technicians, and the uniformed staff of the university respected him. He was always impeccably dressed, unruffled and courteous. He was firm and indeed tough, but he would listen and was always ready to be persuaded by sound argument. During his term as vice-chancellor the university celebrated its Centenary, and the new University Hospital was commissioned. He and Betty worked hard for the university and for the city. When someone asked him what he did when he was not working his reply was one word: ‘Sleep’.

His services were in demand nationally. He was a member, and later vice-chairman, of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, and chairman of its medical advisory committee. He became an important link man in many delicate negotiations between the UGC, the DHSS and the BMA about medical manpower and clinical academic staff salaries, and he represented the UK on medical matters at the EEC.

In the last week of his life, Bob Whelan was in great form. He had had a letter from the Prime Minister informing him that she was minded to recommend that he be knighted in the new year. Naturally, there followed good-natured badinage in the privacy of the Vice-Chancellor’s Lodge.

On the last day of his life, the students had a ‘day of action’ - a day of inaction might be more exact - to protest against the financial cuts imposed on the university by the government. The students’ president had wanted the vice-chancellor to speak on TV, because he knew Whelan was sympathetic to the student concern, but Bob declined, saying: ‘I am not good-looking enough.’ It was while he was addressing the students that he collapsed and died.

His premature death was a sad blow for his family, and his many friends and colleagues in Belfast, Adelaide, Perth and Liverpool; although there was perhaps some envy that he had successfully avoided the anxieties, fears, illnesses and indignities that so often trouble most of us as we age.

A week later, a letter to The Times predicted that his death heralded a big mortality among vice-chancellors due to the strain they were experiencing in handling students and staff at a time of severe financial retrenchment. If Bob had been around still, his comment on that letter would have been caustic.

OL Wade

[Brit.med.J., 1984,289,84,1701-2; Lancet, 1984,2,1407-8; Times, 24 Nov 1984]

(Volume VIII, page 527)

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