Lives of the fellows

Harold Edward (Sir) Whittingham

b.3 October 1887 d.16 July 1983
KCB(1944) KBE(1941) CBE(1930) MB ChB Glasg(1910) DPH(1919) DTM&H(1920) FRFPSG(1926) MRCP(1927) FRCPE(1945) FRCP(1946) Hon LLD Glasg(1943) Hon FRCSE(1945)†

Harold Whittingham,known to his friends as George, had a long and distinguished career in the medical service of the Royal Air Force and was its director general from 1941 to 1946. He was a legendary figure in aviation medicine and in 1973 the professorship of aviation medicine, RCP, was renamed the Whittingham professorship in recognition of his outstanding leadership in this field. After he retired from the RAF he worked as a medical adviser to the British Red Cross, 1946-1948, and from then until 1956 he was director of medical services to the British Overseas Airways Corporation. He maintained close links with military aviation medicine as chairman of the Flying Personnel Research Committee from 1949 to 1967.

Harold was the second son of Engineer Rear Admiral William Whittingham CB, and his wife Elizabeth Annie, née Crowley. He was educated at Christ’s Hospital and Glasgow University, where he graduated MB ChB in 1910. From 1910 to 1914 he was pathologist and assistant director of research at the Royal Cancer Hospital, Glasgow. At the outbreak of the war he worked first for the Scottish National Red Cross and then joined the RAMC, serving in India and Mesopotamia and being mentioned in despatches. In 1919 he transferred to the medical branch of the RAF (then the Royal Flying Corps) as pathologist and was granted a permanent commission. Promotion was rapid: he was air commodore in 1936, air vice marshal in 1940 and air marshal in 1941. In the years between the wars he was director of pathology to the RAF, 1925-1930, and for the greater part of the same period he was also a lecturer in biochemistry at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

During the influenza epidemic of 1918 Harold Whittingham did pioneering work on the production of a vaccine against the commoner secondary invaders, although he was unable to isolate the causative organism. After the war, when the Air Council recognized the burden of sandfly (phlebotomus) fever affecting forces in the Mediterranean area, Whittingham was appointed to head a commission of inquiry, and he and his team worked at the RAF seaplane base at Kalafrana, Malta, from 1921 to 1923. He studied the habits and life cycle of the sandfly and was the first to breed it in captivity. As a result of his recommendations, sandfly fever became a rarity in the RAF. This research was accompanied by his beautiful and detailed pen and ink drawings of every stage in the life history of the insects.

While serving as a consultant at Princess Mary’s RAF Hospital, Halton, Whittingham founded the RAF Institute of Pathology and Tropical medicine; finding time to plant and tend the flower beds around the building. He was also largely responsible for sowing the seed which flowered into his second institute, the RAF Institute of Aviation Medicine, Farnborough. It was then called the RAF Physiological Laboratory and Harold took the closest possible interest in it, staffing it with doctors of his own choice, directing its research and formulating plans to establish it permanently. At the beginning of the second world war he was director of hygiene at the Air Ministry as well as chief executive officer of the Flying Personnel Research Committee, and recognized as an authority on the medical problems of aviation as they affected fighter and bomber air crews and other flying peronnel. In 1941 he was appointed KBE and Glasgow University conferred on him an honorary LLD. That same year he became director general of the RAF medical services, a post he held until 1946. Although he retired in 1946 he continued to keep himself informed not only in the general medical progress but in the policies, performance and personalities of the medical branch, which owed so much to his wise and able administration. During the war, and after, he fashioned the organization and the means to give the fullest physiological and psychological support to the air crews, but he did not allow the men and women who, directly or indirectly, kept the aircraft flying, to be neglected. By force of personality he was able to persuade the Air Council to provide the resources he needed. He also attracted from the university research departments, and the great hospitals, the talent to exploit them.

When he joined British Overseas Airways in 1948 as director of medical services Harold Whittingham, together with his counterparts in other pioneering transglobal airlines, led the way in safeguarding the health of passengers, aircrew and airline staff, around the world. In the early days hygiene and sanitary arrangements on the ground and in aircraft were primitive. Safe water supplies had to be ensured, and arrangements had to be made for the supply of safe meals to passengers and aircrew along the routes, and for their medical care if necessary. Whittingham and his team regularly visited each station used by BOAC to ascertain the best medical facilities available locally, and maintain links with the doctors and hospitals concerned. He also regularly inspected accommodation for aircrew stopping to rest. Close contact was also maintained with WHO and IATA to ensure that the medical requirements for airlines were kept as up to date as possible. In addition, Whittingham was one of the first to arrive at the scene of an aircraft crash in which there was injury or death; not only to care for the injured but also, in his capacity as a member of BOACs air safety committee, to help in establishing whether the cause of the accident was human error or technical failure. All who now travel round the world with such apparent ease and immunity owe much to his pioneering work and that of his colleagues.

In 1912 Harold Whittingham married Agnes Kerr Seright, the daughter of a medical practitioner, and they had a son and a daughter. His wife died in 1966, and he later married Rita, daughter of W Harold White.

Sir Gordon Wolstenholme
Valérie Luniewska

† The list of honorary degrees is too lengthy to include in entirety.

[, 1983, 287, 369, 698, 919; Lancet, 1983, 2, 410; Times, 20 & 28 July 1983]

(Volume VII, page 598)

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