Lives of the fellows

Charles Wilcocks

b.10 April 1896 d.6 March 1977
CMG(1952) MB ChB Manch(1924) MD(1932) DTM&H(1941) MRCP(1943) FRCP(1950)

Charles Wilcocks was born in 1896, and started a course in English at the Manchester University just as war began. He was then 18 years old. He immediately volunteered and was posted to an officers training corps. When commissioned in 1915 he was posted to the forces guarding the Suez Canal. He recalled the disastrous attack by the British forces at Gaza in 1917, across an open plain against Turkish troops well dug in on low hills. He was one of the two out of twenty officers who survived, saved, he said, by a bullet through a shoulder. Half the other ranks were lost. Immediately a number of the senior staff were posted out of the command.

On demobilization in 1919, he returned to Manchester but now had little taste for English, and transferred to medicine. He graduated in 1924.

He married Frances Gertrude Bullough in 1921, who also graduated in medicine. She died in February 1976, after some months of failing health through which Charles devotedly attended her.

After graduation he went into general practice. Some time later a visit by an old friend of student days, on leave from the Colonial medical service in Tanganyika, opened for them the attractive opportunities for work and life there. Soon after they were in Tanganyika (1927).

His career began much like that of any new arrival, relief duties at out-stations, field team work, and infectious diseases hospitals. In the last in Dar-es-Salaam he became interested in the amount of tuberculosis among Africans.

Some time later, while recovering from paratyphoid at a hill station, he heard that the director of medical services had proposed the establishment of a centre for the study of tuberculosis in the rural population. Charles indicated to the DMS his interest in this work. He was advised to call upon HH Scott of the Bureau of Hygiene and Tropical Diseases during his approaching leave in London. If he satisfied Scott the post was his. Scott approved, and he was appointed tuberculosis research officer in 1930. His leave was extended for him to widen his experience in all aspects of tuberculosis. This he did with S Lyle Cummins and bacteriologist WH Tytler at the King Edward VII Welsh National Memorial Association (prevention, treatment and abolition of tuberculosis) in Cardiff. He often said how much he owed to those devoted workers. He returned to East Africa with a portable radiographic set, and a generator that was driven from the back wheel of a motor car.

In Tanganyika he was based in Moshi, a delightful hill station, in the high country against Mount Kilimanjaro. As accommodation for his unit was not ready his work commenced under canvas. He led an active life with heavy field work. Much pulmonary tuberculosis in the Africans was found. He recalled how he found some acid-fast bacilli which he thought were not pathogenic, but he had neither the time nor facilities to follow this up.

On leave in the UK after his third tour (1934—1937) in Tanganyika, a pulmonary tubercular focus was found in a radiograph taken for a ‘normal’ control. He wondered if this was a laboratory or a field infection. He was invalided out of the service in 1937. After three months in Switzerland he returned to London to begin a new life.

Charles was appointed Scott’s assistant in the Bureau in 1938, and upon Sir Harold Scott’s retirement in 1942 he became acting director; he was made director in 1946. He was well equipped by his field work in East Africa to meet the many calls made on the Bureau in the service of the medical officers of the armed forces of the Allies during the war. This was specially met by the Bulletin of War Medicine (1942-1946).

With the end of the war he recommended that the Bureau expand its activities to embrace the whole field of medicine. This was vetoed by some timid but powerful members of his governing body. Such a broad approach was soon after undertaken by the BMA and the Dutch.

Under Charles’s capable guidance the Bulletin of Hygiene and the Tropical Diseases Bulletin developed with the times, and continued to be essential tools for workers in these fields.

He retired from the Bureau in 1961, but maintained his interest in his past activities and life by accepting a consultantship to the Counties Public Health Laboratories, London, 1962-1975. His broad and up to date acquaintance with public health problems in the tropics and their solution made his advice very useful. He also devoted much care to writing an autobiography based on his diaries.

In 1960 he gave the Heath Clark lectures of London University on Aspects of medical investigation in Africa which were published in 1962. He was co-author of the 17th edition of Manson's tropical diseases (1972). Among other publications were Tuberculosis in Tanganyika (1938), Health and disease in the tropics (1950), and Medical advance, public health and social evolution (1965).

Charles sometimes wondered if he made the right decision when he joined the Bureau. He had a feeling that he might not have used his qualities there as fully as he might perhaps have done had he followed a more active career in research. Those who had time out with pulmonary tuberculosis 30-40 years ago will recall the initial weakening of self-confidence as a new life is started, and the uncertainty of finding the restricted employment imposed by the then lack of chemotherapy. Charles did in fact have a slight relapse of his infection in 1946. All who benefited from the work of Charles and his staff at the Bureau would assure him of the importance of their contribution to the health of populations in all continents.

He was a member of the court of governors of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine from 1963 to 1971, and also a member of the board of governors of University College Hospital from 1953 to 1956.

He was a loyal fellow of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. He joined the Society in 1938, was a member of council 1943-1963, honorary secretary 1951-1963, president 1963-1965 and editor of the Transactions 1964—1970.

Charles was a gentle but strong, helpful person, never complaining. He had wide general interests; there was music in his family and he painted for pleasure. He was one of that band of colonial medical service officers who after devoted service loved Africa and its people for ever afterwards. Tropical service in Africa in Charles’s time was not a life of power and luxury or domesticity; the suppression of malaria, and the chemotherapy of the prevalent bowel infections were then not known. Nowadays air travel has made possible a quality of family life that was not imagined in the ‘bad old days’.

CJ Hackett

[Brit.med.J., 1977, 1, 847; Trop. Med. Hyg. News, June 1977]

(Volume VII, page 603)

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