Lives of the fellows

Allan George Williams Whitfield

b.30 January 1909 d.18 February 1987
CBE(1974) MB ChB Birm(1931) MRCP(1946) MD(1950) FRCP(1953) PhD(1955) FFCM(1978)

Most people, when they first met George Whitfield, concluded that he could not be as good as he appeared. As time passed, they realized that he could. His warmth, his courtesy, his charm, his friendliness, his willingness to help others, no matter how much it demanded from him, became legendary.

George Whitfield was born at Ironbridge, Shropshire, where his father was a general practitioner, and for five generations many members of his mother’s family had practised medicine in that part of England. He was educated at Wellingborough School and the University of Birmingham, where he graduated in medicine with distinction in pharmacology and therapeutics at the early age of 22. After house appointments he went into general practice. He had joined the RAMC Territorial Army in 1933 and during the war he served as second in command of a field ambulance in France, being mentioned in despatches. In 1942 he was promoted lieutenant colonel and became assistant director of medical services to the First Army. He was invalided out with a severe chest infection in 1943, and returned to general practice. Four years later he relinquished general practice and returned to academic medicine, becoming medical registrar to the new professorial department of medicine at Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham. In 1948 he was elected to the staff as consultant physician and lecturer in medicine to the University, subsequently becoming director of the board of graduate medical studies at the university 1955-74, and professor of medicine 1966-74.

George Whitfield gained his membership of the College in 1946 and was elected a Fellow seven years later. He gave unstinting service to the College: he was a councillor, examiner and second vice-president. He gave the Lumleian lecture in 1975, the Croonian sermon in 1983 and the Harveian oration in 1986. An accomplished orator, he was able -without notes - to hold an audience spellbound. He was also assistant director of the College’s research unit from 1977 until his death.

He was editor of the Quarterly Journal of Medicine for 13 years; a member of the Association of Physicians of Great Britain and Ireland, the British Cardiac Society and the Thoracic Society. He was secretary and treasurer, 1950-58, of the West Midlands Physicians Association and was largely responsible for it becoming such an active body. He was its president in 1970.

Postgraduate education was one of his interests and he examined for many universities. During his 19 years as postgraduate dean in Birmingham he supervised the development of postgraduate medical education and the building of postgraduate centres in the West Midlands region. He took a prominent part on a national level as chairman of the advisory committee of postgraduate deans of the Council for Postgraduate Medical Education. He was elected a fellow of the Faculty of Community Medicine in 1978, and had been convenor of the Midlands and South Western inter-regional training scheme in community medicine. He became deputy lieutenant for the county of the West Midlands in 1975.

George Whitfield’s chief research interests were in lung volume, radiation damage to thoracic tissues and cardiomyopathy, but he contributed over 100 scientific papers to the literature on a wide variety of subjects. He was also interested in Victorian history and published a number of historical papers and two books Beloved Sir James, Sutton Coldfield 1982, and The First thirty-seven registrars of the College, Sutton Coldfield 1981, both published privately. A brief period in his youth as a part-time member of Sir Barry Jackson’s Company at the Repertory Theatre in Birmingham led to a lifelong interest in the theatre, and among his other leisure activities were cricket, racing and golf.

It was George’s training in general practice which helped him to be such an outstanding consultant. He understood minor problems as well as major ones, and was an inexhaustible source of sympathy and understanding. His politeness and consideration for others were a striking part of his character, but behind his polished manners was tremendous drive and an application which only those who knew him well could appreciate. Having decided on a paper, he would retire to the library and the first draft would appear within days. This, coupled with the fact that he knew everyone worth knowing in medicine in this country was of inesdmable value to the RCP research unit - he held the unit together as no one else could have done.

The fact that he knew what it was like to have frequent ill health contributed to his excellence as a doctor, but made not the slightest difference to his application to work. His terminal illness was already causing him distress when he gave his Harveian oration, but he gave the lecture without a note and the applause emphasized the quality of his performance. Soon afterwards he was obliged to retire to his bed, but this did not stop him working; he edited and produced manuscripts almost to the end. George hated being a nuisance to anyone, but never thought of anyone who needed his help as being a nuisance to him. As a young colleague said: ‘He was a perfectionist in all things, but most of all in the spirit of being a gentleman.’

In 1937 he married Barbara Franks and they had one daughter. Barbara looked after him devotedly through his many health setbacks, with courage and exemplary cheerfulness, particularly so during his last few weeks.

George Whitfield was typical of all that is best in general physicians, and he could sum up people admirably, as evidenced by the frequency with which he was asked to write obituaries for colleagues. Just before he died he had submitted a chapter to a book on medical writing, still to be published. His contribution dealt with writing an obituary for a colleague: ‘That,’ he said to a friend, with a smile, ‘will give you something to chuckle about after I’ve gone.’

Sir Cyril Clarke
Sir Raymond Hoffenberg

[, 1987,294,584; Lancet, 1987,1,577-8; The Times, 2 Mar 1987; Univ.Birm.Fac.of MedBull. Autumn 1974,40,37; 41-3; Times of Malta, 23 May 1964; Birmingham Post, 28 May 1966; Address,Service of Thanksgiving,Edgbaston Old Church, 1 May 1987; Tape recording]

(Volume VIII, page 530)

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