Lives of the fellows

Donald Whitfield

b.7 March 1920 d.10 December 1990
MRCS LRCP(1943) MA Cantab(1945) MB BChir(1947) MRCP(1949) FRCP(1980)

Donald Whitfield was the son of John Thompson Whitfield, a company director who lived in Darlington. He was educated at Darlington Grammar School and Sedbergh School, before going on to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, from where he obtained his qualifications. After a short period as a house physician at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London, he volunteered for war service and became a surgeon lieutenant in the RNVR.

In 1947 he left the Navy and returned to civilian life and Bart’s, where he occupied the post of chief assistant for a year. He moved to the Royal Free Hospital in 1949 to take up a senior registrar’s post, in which capacity he continued until 1952 when he sought new pastures and emigrated to Rhodesia.

After a brief period in Bulawayo he moved to the northern territory. These were the days of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland when doctors could move freely around all three countries in search of employment. His appointment was originally as consultant physician to the Ndola and Kitwe hospitals but this was later broadened to honorary consultant to the Northern Rhodesian government and Army, in recognition of the services he had rendered to the growth of medical services within the territory.

It was during these years when, as a senior partner in a local general practice, the writer first met Donald Whitfield and developed a great respect for his clinical acumen and knowledge of general and tropical medicine. In addition to his government appointments he also ran a very busy private practice. He was the first person to set up a private pathology laboratory in Northern Rhodesia which was able to offer many more modern and sophisticated investigations than those obtainable within the government laboratory facilities. He always exuded an air of confidence when dealing with patients referred for an opinion. Some felt that he was even over-confident but this was far from the case. On many occasions when we had referred a particularly complex case to him he would write back to report that the diagnosis was FTDD (far too damned difficult) and would suggest that we seek a further opinion in either the UK or South Africa.

In 1962 he returned to the UK to take up the post of medical director to the then embryonic Bayer Pharmaceuticals UK Ltd., and after about three years in this post he became managing director. Although he was a very good physician and contributed much to the early development of clinical trial methodology in the pharmaceutical industry he was not a born businessman and he parted company with Bayer in 1972.

Donald never lost his love of the sea and for a couple of years he spent his time competing in transatlantic races and acting as a ship’s doctor. Finally he returned to his first love, clinical medicine. In his appointment as a consultant at Crawley Hospital he soon became recognized as an accomplished physician and a lucid teacher. The close proximity of Crawley Hospital to Gatwick Airport also meant that all incoming passengers from tropical climes, who were ill on arrival, were referred to him for diagnosis. He published one or two letters in the BMJ describing cases of malaria, bilharzia and other tropical diseases which he had diagnosed in such patients. I can imagine how much fun he had in demonstrating such cases to the unsuspecting postgraduate students who attended his ward rounds at Crawley.

Donald Whitfield was a convivial person who enjoyed mixing with people from all walks of life, to whom he would listen with genuine interest being always willing to learn.

In 1977 he married Mary, née Digby, his second wife, who survived him. He had no children.

A G Pitchford

[Brit.med.J., 1991,302,1332]

(Volume IX, page 576)

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