Lives of the fellows

Mary Juliet Wilmers

b.13 May 1907 d.4 May 1992
MB BS Lond(1931) MD(1935) MRCP(1935) FRCP(1953)

Mary Wilmers was born in London of a German-Jewish family. Her father Ernst Wilmers, a stockbroker, arrived in England in 1878 when he was 16 years old. Her mother Julia née Szkolny was the daughter of a banker.

Mary once said ‘I must be one of the few people who never went to school.’ Around the time of the 1914-18 war her family moved to Sweden, so she was taught at home by her mother and father with some help from the local schoolmaster. After the war some time was spent in Cologne before returning to London. Private tuition enabled her to pass London University matriculation and to enter King’s College m 1924 to study medicine. During her medical training she was taught paediatrics by Sir Frederic Still [Munk's Roll, Vol.IV, p.432] and when attending a service in 1991 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his death she remarked ‘I am probably the only person living who has shaken hands with him.’

After qualification she was house surgeon to the obstetric and gynaecological department at King’s. She obtained her MD and her membership of the College in 1935, during a period spent at the Royal Northern Hospital. That same year her paediatric career began at St Vincent’s Hospital (later the Westminster Children’s). She returned to King’s in 1938 as registrar to Wilfrid Sheldon, later Sir Wilfrid [Munk's Roll, Vol.VII, p.531]. Throughout the second world war she was resident EMS physician to King’s with sole charge of paediatrics. In 1942 she was appointed consultant paediatrician to the South London Hospital for Women and in 1945 to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital for Children in east London. She had charge of a gastroenteritis ward and was involved in trials to assess the use of antibiotics in that disorder v ‘Diseases of the alimentary tract’ in Diseases of children, 4th edition, ed. A E Garrod, F E Batten, D M Thursfield, London, Edward Arnold & Co, 1947. In 1948 she achieved consultant status at King’s College Hospital and the associated Belgrave Hospital. She had the distinction of being the first woman consultant ever to be appointed to King’s.

Until 1945 women were not elected to the fellowship of the College, or to membership of the British Paediatric Association. Mary Wilmers’ high reputation in paediatrics is evident from her election to the BPA in 1946 and her election as a Fellow of the College in 1953. At that time few women had attained such honours.

Mary did not come from a medical family but an aunt who had completed medical studies at the Royal Free Hospital in 1899 (but never took the qualifying examinations) may have influenced her final choice of career. She had considered journalism. Although the contribution she made to the literature may be small by today’s standards, she was for many years lecturer in paediatrics to the University of London and her impact on students and senior staff was great. She believed that medicine should be taught at the bedside and by example; she excelled at teaching and in demonstrating physical signs. She was an astute diagnostician, with an amazing memory for the unusual clinical problem, and her opinion was often sought by other paediatricians. Although held in awe by students and junior staff, she was affectionately referred to as ‘Mary Jane’. Many of her juniors remained in touch with her over the years and she continued to give advice and maintain an interest in their careers.

Mary Wilmers’ appearance was striking - slim, erect posture, shoulders back, head held high with a direct gaze from steely blue eyes which twinkled from time to time for she had a sense of humour, especially of the ridiculous. Always immaculately dressed, she gave the impression of being cool, calm and collected. She seldom raised her voice or made a hurried movement. Children seemed to respond to this as few cried or struggled when examined.

She had many interests outside medicine and read widely - not only in English but also in French, German, Swedish and Norwegian. Having enjoyed the study of Latin for matriculation, she took it up again in her retirement. Travelling was one of her hobbies and she had probably visited all the major galleries and museums in Europe and Russia. She loved the theatre, musical evenings and concerts. Although she did not play a musical instrument she had ‘a good ear* and had a musical family, being delighted when her nephews showed early talent. She gave support to her local musical society and for many years attended Bach’s St Matthew Passion’ at the Festival Hall. Sadly, this pleasure was diminished with the onset of deafness.

In her younger days, she is said to have been fond of outdoor pursuits; skiing as a child in Sweden and, on holidays, in Switzerland. She also enjoyed swimming, especially when diving from her aunt’s garden in Norway into the fiord. When she was at the Royal Northern a canoe was kept in a boathouse at Wapping and, with friends, she would paddle to Chiswick for a meal. Friends recall her love of parties and how well she could dance. A love of walking persisted throughout her life and she took walking holidays in the Isle of Wight with college friends up to the time of her death. She loved the company of young people and would give them a walking tour of London lasting several hours.

Although Mary Wilmers never married, she was a wonderful aunt to two generations of nieces and nephews. She ‘baby sat’, listened to them patiently and sometimes wryly, and took them on outings and holidays. One nephew remembers how she taught him to make tarts -as described in a book by Edward Lear. She never forgot her old friends and would have long telephone conversations with them on Sunday mornings. She had compassion for the underdog and those in distress; in retirement she visited the local home for the elderly. She read to those whose sight had failed and taught illiterate adults to read. She died as she would have wished - in her own bed, after a 24-hour illness, having been out and about the previous day.

M B Mearns

(Volume IX, page 589)

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