Lives of the fellows

Eric Gordon Wilkins

b.30 October 1907 d.31 March 1988
MB BS Lond(1930) MD(1935) DTM&H(1935) MRCP(1948) FRCP(1971)

Eric Gordon Williams was born at Cuttack, Orissa, India, the son of Rev Gordon Smedley Wilkins and his wife Ellen Lucy, daughter of Rev John Gregory Pike. His father, his maternal grandfather and a maternal uncle were Baptist missionaries in Orissa, India.

He was educated at Eltham College and the Middlesex Hospital medical school. His intention, based on the strong religious convictions derived from his family background, was to return to Orissa as a medical missionary. He graduated MB BS in 1930, having been awarded the Leopold Hudson prize in the final year. Towards the end of his time as a student he met Honor Elizabeth Cooper Harvey, the daughter of an architect; she was studying medicine at the Royal Free Hospital, shared his purpose in life, and graduated at the same time. They became engaged, and determined to work together in the medical missionary field. Having in mind the probable needs of his intended work, he applied for surgical rather than medical house appointments, and was house surgeon and casualty officer at Willesden General, and house surgeon at Nottingham General Hospital.

Seeking an appointment in an existing mission hospital in India, they found that the Baptist Society had no vacancies, and were accepted for a 5-year posting to a Methodist mission hospital at Sarenga in West Bengal. They married, and went to Sarenga in 1932. After two years Gordon was invalided home to London with a diagnosis of tropical sprue, for which he was treated at the Hospital for Tropical Diseases. In spite of the prevailing advice of the time, that sufferers from tropical sprue should not return to the tropics, he was determined to work in India and while convalescing studied for and obtained the Diploma in Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, and the London University MD in tropical medicine.

An opportunity arose when the Baptist Missionary Society proposed a new hospital in the Kond Hills, an area in Orissa which was without medical facilities, as a memorial to a former medical secretary of the Society, Fletcher Moorshead. Gordon and Honor Wilkins undertook this task, and returned to India early in 1936. In retirement 50 years later he wrote a book, which was published privately, describing the 15 years they devoted to the establishment of this hospital in the Kond Hills. The title ‘By Hands, bullocks and prayers' reflects the pioneering nature of their work. They started from scratch, planning and supervising building, improvising when necessary everything from drainage and water supply to medical equipment; he taking responsibility for administration and for medicine and surgery, including eye surgery - especially for cataract, and she for obstetrics and gynaecology. This work continued throughout the second world war, and was recognized to be of such importance that he was exempted from service with the armed forces.

They returned to England in 1946, with the three sons who had been born during their stay in India. Gordon was successful in the MRCP examination in 1948; a remarkable achievement for one who had never had a house physician appointment and whose clinical experience had been as much surgical as medical, and in medicine principally tropical. At the end of 1948 they returned to the hospital in the Kond Hills for a final three years, having decided that for the sake of their three sons this should be the limit of their service abroad. When they finally returned from India in 1951, they left an established hospital of 140 beds, serving a population of mainly aboriginal hill tribes, numbering about half a million, and attracting patients from long distances. At the silver jubilee celebrations of this hospital in 1964 they were honoured guests.

Gordon’s first post after return to England was at Dorking General Hospital, in the senior hospital officer medical grade as deputy medical superintendent, with clinical duties in general medicine, chest medicine and the care of the chronic sick. In 1956 he was appointed to the new post of consultant physician in geriatrics for the York area, and the second part of his professional life began. He once again did a pioneering job. Starting with little more than an old poor-law infirmary which needed adaptation to modern requirements, he built up medical services for the elderly so that when he retired, in 1972, he left an integrated geriatric service. The high regard in which his clinical colleagues held him was shown when they elected him chairman of the medical division in York.

Gordon Wilkins (he never used his first name) remained throughout his life quietly true to the ideals of his youth. Rather above average height, slim and upright, he gave those meeting him for the first time an impression of being somewhat precise and formal, but his quiet sense of humour soon became evident in conversation. He was a Rotarian and served as president of the York Club in 1969. He was an accomplished flautist, playing in the York Symphony Orchestra.

After his retirement, he and his wife moved to Colwall, near Malvern. He continued to be active in fund raising for medical aid to the third world; among these was a typically ingenious scheme for collecting unused medical samples, sorting them and sending them to places where they might be of use.

His wife died in 1986. Her final illness began when he was writing the book in which he described the work they had done together in establishing the hospital in the Kond Hills; he dedicated it to her memory, and was pleased that she had been able to discuss each chapter as it was written and had seen the final one. Of their three sons, one followed his parents into medicine and became a consultant anaesthetist.

JG Scadding

[Brit.med.J., 1988,297,418]

(Volume VIII, page 535)

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