Lives of the fellows

John Frederick Wilkinson

b.10 June 1897 d.13 August 1998
BSc Manch(1920) MSc(1921) PhD(1923) MB ChB(1928) MD(1931) MRCP(1932) FRCP(1937) Hon DSc Bradford(1976) FRSC

John Frederick Wilkinson, or ‘Wilkie’, as he was commonly known, combined boundless energy and great diversity of interests; his unique qualities were maintained into his high nineties and their exercise must have contributed to his survival into centenarian status.

He was small in stature, but nonetheless could dominate on entry into a room. His facial expression was not unlike that bestowed on Lord Moran by Pietro Annigoni in the College portrait. The strong impression of acumen thus given was well founded; to give one example, the haematology department which he founded and directed in Manchester was furnished from the Stockport warehouse which Wilkie owned. To balance the picture, he was a man of courage; his part in the naval action at Zeebrugge during the First World War led to his being balloted for the Victoria Cross award.

His scientific career began in chemistry, in which he graduated with first class honours from Manchester University. He immediately proceeded to a PhD. He became a demonstrator in crystallography, but an awakening interest in clinical matters led him to qualify in medicine and to obtain his MD with a gold medal.

Fully equipped to deploy his specialized chemical expertise to the study of disease, he did so in two main areas, both of which exemplify his ability to select important and soluble problems, his flair for adopting unusual but relevant approaches to his subject, and his undeviating pursuit of a chosen objective. Experience of the effects of mustard gas in the war alerted him to the possibility that less toxic analogues - the nitrogen mustards - might have a place in the treatment of neoplastic disorders of the bone marrow. This led to a long series of clinical observations, together with Martin Israëls [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.298], on the effect of these agents in patients with leukaemia. Another line of investigation stemmed from the discovery by George Minot [Munk’s Roll, Vol.V, p.286] and William P Murphy that raw liver in large amounts could produce remission in patients with pernicious anaemia. Wilkie took advantage of his interest in zoological gardens, first at Belle Vue in Manchester and later at Chester Zoo, to examine stomachs and livers from a wide range of species. He was thus able to show a relation between a quantity of haematinic activity in tissue and the diet consumed by the animal.

This was the start of a lifelong interest in haematology. Within a year of medical qualification he was made director of the new department of clinical investigation at Manchester Royal Infirmary. He led investigations into endocrine and allergic diseases, but the main focus was increasingly on clinical haematology. Large numbers of patients were recruited, some from considerable distances, and Wilkie became recognized, nationally and internationally, as one of the founding fathers of clinical haematology. Together with L J Witts [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.618], he founded the British Society for Haematology. He was president of the European Society in 1959 and ‘life councillor and founder’ of the International Society of Haematology.

As already suggested, his interests even within medicine ranged far beyond haematology. He had the fortunate ability to endow patients with a measure of his own massive self-confidence, and this must have contributed to the success of his large private practice which centred on his rooms in Lorne Street, but also included domicilliary visits throughout the north west of the country. He was a fellow of the Manchester Medical Society, served as its president and was its honorary editor for decades. He was a liveryman of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, and gave the Osler Lecture in 1981. In the College, he gave the Oliver Sharpey lecture in 1948, and the Samuel Gee lecture in 1977.

The Samuel Gee Lecture may perhaps serve as a stepping-stone from his medical to his other interests. In it he described his unique collection of antique English and continental medicine jars, which filled many shelves in his home at Mobberley, Cheshire. The collection also provides an example of the truism that generous intentions are not always crowned by fulfilment; at different times Wilkie promised to present the collection to Manchester University, to the Apothecaries, and to the College. These impulses were at variance with his desire to keep the collection intact, and it was this desire which in the end prevailed. The entire collection now adorns the Thackray Medical Museum in Leeds, and, in a final piece of good fortune, Wilkie was able to see it there.

Outside medicine he was a freeman of the City of London, a motorist, both on road and race-course, a scout who was presented with a badge by Baden-Powell in 1919, and was awarded the silver wolf for ‘good service’ in 1992, a keeper of tropical fish and a collector of antique porcelain (in addition to his medicine jars). In short, as near to a Renaissance man as we are likely to see.

Sir Douglas Black

[Brit.med.J., 1999,318,130; The Guardian 1 Sept 1998; The Times 24 Aug 1998; The Daily Telegraph 31 Aug 1998]

(Volume XI, page 623)

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