Lives of the fellows

Lionel Ernest Howard (Sir) Whitby

b.8 May 1895 d.24 November 1956
MC(1917) CVO(1929) Kt(1945) MB BCh Cantab(1923) DPH Eng(1924) MA Cantab(1927) MD Cantab(1927) Hon DSc Toronto(1953) Hon LLD Glasg(1954) Hon MD Louvain(1956) MRCS LRCP(1923) MRCP(1927) FRCP(1933)

Lionel Whitby was born at Yeovil, Somerset, the second son of Benjamin Whitby, a glove manufacturer, and his wife, Jane Elizabeth Milborne. He went to Bromsgrove School and in 1914 won a senior open scholarship to Downing College, Cambridge. But at the outbreak of war he enlisted in the Royal Fusiliers, was commissioned as machine gun officer in the Royal West Kent Regiment, and served in Serbia, Gallipoli, Salonika and France. He rose to the rank of major, gained the M.C. for gallantry at Passchendaele in 1917, and was severely wounded in 1918, losing his right leg. He went up to Downing in 1918 to study medicine and then on to the Middlesex Hospital in 1921. After qualification he was appointed assistant pathologist in the Bland-Sutton Institute at the Middlesex Hospital, and worked there until 1939.

In 1928 he was called in to attend King George V and was subsequently appointed C.V.O. Although his work was initially bacteriological, Whitby became increasingly interested in haematology—then a developing science—and, later, in experimental studies on the new sulphonamide compounds. These culminated in the introduction of sulphapyridine (M&B 693) for clinical use (Lancet, 1938,1, 1210-12). For this work Whitby was awarded the John Hunter triennial medal and prize by the Royal College of Surgeons, and in 1938 at the Royal College of Physicians he delivered the Bradshaw lecture, The Chemotherapy of bacterial infections’.

After preliminary work begun in June 1939, Whitby took charge of the Army Blood Transfusion Service at the outbreak of war and so organised and developed it that blood or plasma was ultimately available to front-line units. For this major feat of organisation which saved numberless lives, he rose to the rank of brigadier. He was awarded gold medals by the Royal Society of Medicine and Society of Apothecaries, and was appointed Commander of the American Legion of Merit and Chevalier of the Legion of Honour. He was knighted in January 1945, and with the end of the war there commenced a chain-reaction of honours and distinctions which lasted for the rest of his life.

His election as honorary fellow of Downing in February 1945 and his appointment as regius professor of physic at Cambridge later in the same year made him an obvious choice for the mastership of Downing, to which he was elected in May 1947. This in turn brought him the post of vice-chancellor of the University (1951-3) and an honorary fellowship of Lincoln College, Oxford (1953). At the College he was a Councillor (1946-8).

By nature a traditionalist, he did not relish the idea of a National Health Service, and it was with evident relief that he turned to academic medicine after the war. But he saw the chance to form an active medical school at Cambridge and played a leading part on the board of governors of the United Cambridge Hospitals in planning a new Addenbrooke’s teaching hospital. In the clinical sphere he built up a haematology unit to which patients came from far afield. To the qualities of a shrewd general physician he added his special laboratory experience. Patients were always individuals and addressed by name, a practice which he said created a sensation on his visits across the Atlantic.

Outside Cambridge he had world-wide medical contacts: he was visiting professor of medicine at Harvard in 1946, and then held successive presidencies of the British Medical Association (1948), the International Society of Haematology (1950), the Association of Clinical Pathologists (1951), and the First World Congress on Medical Education (1953). His last distinction, in 1956, was that of Sims travelling professor to Australia. A prolific writer of papers and books, his main works were Medical bacteriology (1928) and, with C. J. C. Britton, the classic Disorders of the blood (1935) of which the eighth edition was in preparation at the time of his death.

Few medical men have had such a varied career, and even fewer have been so successful in each sphere. The common factors of success in his many roles were his clear and orderly mind which concentrated upon essentials, a prodigious capacity for work and, above all, a sense of humour and ability to keep the common touch. Whitby could be dignified or stern when the occasion demanded, but never pompous. Stupid or irritating individuals were endured with a polite restraint—often relieved later by pungent comment. He enjoyed social occasions and knew the value of entertainment both for fostering friendship and softening-up opposition. Fishing, gardening and stamp-collecting were his main hobbies.

He married, in 1922, Ethel Murgatroyd, M.A. (Cantab.), M.R.C.S., L.R.C.P., the second daughter of James Murgatroyd, of Shelf, near Halifax, and had a daughter and three sons, two of whom became Members of the College. Whitby died in the Middlesex Hospital.

Richard R Trail

[, 1956, 2, 1306-09 (p), 1434, 1493; J. Amer. med. Ass., 1957, 163, 669, 767; Lancet, 1956, 2, 1165-7 (p); 1957, 1, 44; Nature (Lond.), 1957, 179, 16-17; Times, 26 Nov. (p), 1, 6 Dec. 1956.]

(Volume V, page 444)

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