Lives of the fellows

William Frederick Whimster

b.17 June 1934 d.24 January 1997
MRCS LRCP(1958) BChir Cantab(1958) MA MB(1959) Dobst RCOG(1963) MRCP(1965) MRCPath(1971) MD(1982) FRCPath(1982) FRCP(1984)

William (Bill) Whimster was a man of immense warmth and charm who combined a boyish sense of fun and capacity for friendship with an intellectual rigour which characterized his academic career. He was one of three sons of the distinguished Nottingham physician, William Swanson Whimster [Munk’s Roll, Vol. VI, p.456] and his wife, Madge (née Edwards), who had met in Ancoats Hospital, Manchester, when they were working in casualty and then set up in general practice in Nottingham. Bill went to Sedbergh School and then to Queens’ College, Cambridge, to read natural sciences. He did his medical training at Guy’s. There he met his radiographer wife, Sybil Harrison Wallace. On qualifying he did house jobs at Lewisham Hospital and then a year in obstetrics and gynaecology at the City Hospital, Nottingham. Called up for National Service in 1960 he elected to join the Colonial Service and was posted with Sybil to Lautoka Hospital, Fiji, where he was in charge of the medical beds. After 18 months they moved to Niue on his appointment as chief medical officer, "as a punishment posting", he remarked, but he was in his element: operating with an orderly who gave the anaesthetic with a rag and bottle, delivering babies (including his second child), overseeing public health and carrying out forensic examinations.

On returning to England in 1963 Bill thought he ought to do some pathology to complete his education and got a job at Lewisham Hospital where he came under the influence of the histologist, Martin Skelton and Eric Allott [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.8] the ‘father of clinical chemistry’. This experience determined his future career. He moved on to the Royal Free Hospital where he studied haematology with Katharine Dormandy [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.157] and morbid anatomy with Peter Scheuer and Kenneth Hill [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.239]. The latter arranged for him to spend two years with Gerrit Bras, the world authority on veno-occlusive disease of the liver, at the University Hospital in Jamaica. He was given space in the Rippel laboratory, where he began making thin paper sections of lung, providing evidence of the damage caused by smoking and, subsequently, by air pollution. Back in England he first joined Lynne Reid as a senior lecturer at the Brompton and then transferred to the Medical Research Council’s air pollution research unit at Bart’s, directed by Pat Lawther.

Around this time he began to develop an interest in medical writing. In 1971 Stephen Lock, a friend from Lewisham days and later editor of the British Medical Journal was asked by colleagues in Finland to provide a course in medical writing for doctors whose first language was not English. He took with him Bill and David Pyke. The visit was a great success, not least through Bill’s light-hearted approach. He was nicknamed ‘Yoking Vimster’ by Yro Collan because of his fondness for excruciating jokes. In the succeeding 17 years members of the medical writing group took the message to the Middle East, India, Singapore, Canada, Australasia and Eastern Europe, as well as doing courses in Britain and Ireland, and Bill later incorporated many of the lessons in Biomedical research: how to plan, publish and present it (Berlin/New York, Springer, 1997), published just before his death.

In 1974 Whimster found a permanent niche at King’s, first as senior lecturer in morbid anatomy, then as reader and acting head of department in 1983, and finally as professor of histopathology in 1991. His consuming research interest was in the microscopic pathology of the lung, especially in emphysema and cancer, for which he developed new and sophisticated morphometric techniques for characterizing individual cells. An early computer buff, he used his expertise to produce elegant, computer-assisted 3D reconstructions of lung tissue for obtaining quantitative data which might be related to disease outcomes. He got together a group of like-minded colleagues to form the European Society of Analytic Cellular Pathology, of which he was chairman at the time of his death. He compiled a bibliography of Tumours of the trachea, bronchi, lungs and pleura (London, Pitman, 1983), which was praised for its readability, and from 1987 he was an imaginative editor of the Bulletin of the Royal College of Pathologists.

His friendly nature made him an instinctive teacher, a helpful examiner both at home and abroad (Ethiopia and West Indies), chairman, secretary or member of innumerable committees and a compulsive traveller to conferences. He had a soft spot for tradition. He was a liveryman of the Society of Apothecaries, a member of the Athenaeum and died while giving the first of a series of carefully prepared lectures to medical students on the importance of medical history in understanding current practice. He read widely and eclectically, particularly enjoying history, and collected the novels of Erie Stanley Gardner for their insights into forensic practice and those of Patrick O’Brian for their descriptions of 19th century medicine during the Napoleonic wars.

Perhaps paradoxically, he was also an outdoor man. He skied every winter, enjoyed long distance walking as a member of the Contour Club founded by Stephen Lock, owned a narrow boat and mastered the art of wind surfing. On the morning of his death he had been roller-blading - a new enthusiasm - on the front at Brighton. He used a small motorcycle to get round London and was often late for meetings, but was forgiven because he was such good company - "he always made me smile" said a friend. He and Sybil had two sons and two daughters. His sudden death from coronary artery disease devastated not only his family and lifelong friends but everyone at the teaching hospital where he worked.

Alex Paton

[Brit.med.J., 1997,314,522; The Independent, 1 Feb 1997]

(Volume X, page 511)

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