Lives of the fellows

Andrew Wilson

b.13 July 1909 d.2 October 1974
CBE(1971) MPS(1930) FPS(1931) PhD Glasg(1937) MB ChB(1939) MD(1944) FRFPS Glasg(1949) FRCPG(1962) MRCP(1967) FRCP(1972)

Andrew Wilson was born in Glasgow, where his father Hugh Wilson was an accountant; his mother was Sarah, daughter of David Liddell, an engineer. He was educated at Muirkirk, Ayrshire, and at North Kelvinside School, Glasgow. His early vocational training was in pharmacy at the Royal Technical College, Glasgow (now the University of Strathclyde). After taking the diplomas of MPS (1930) and FPS (1931) he was appointed Weir Assistant in materia medica to Professor Ralph Stockman in the University of Glasgow. Under Stockman’s guidance he worked on toxic substances in cereals and wrote his PhD thesis on this subject; and two years later - while still an assistant lecturer - he graduated MB ChB.

After a short time as a research assistant with Professor J.H. Gaddum (later Sir John Gaddum) in London, he went to Sheffield where he assisted Professor E.J. Wayne (later Sir Edward Wayne) as lecturer in pharmacology and therapeutics, clinical assistant at Sheffield Royal Infirmary and consultant at the Sheffield City General Hospital. From 1939 until the end of the war he served in the Home Guard, first as Captain and later with the rank of Major. When a new sub-department of applied pharmacology was set up at University College London and University College Hospital, Wilson accepted an invitation to be lecturer and he worked with Professor F.R. Winton, Professor (later Sir) Harold Himsworth and Professor (later Lord) Rosenheim. In 1948 he was appointed Reader in applied pharmacology in the University of London, and in 1951 he went to Liverpool University as Professor of Pharmacology. Wilson became a consultant physician under the Liverpool Regional Hospital Board in 1964.

He was for a time a member of the Pharmaceutical Society’s Board of Examiners for Scotland, and an examiner in pharmacology in many universities in the United Kingdom including Cambridge, Glasgow, Aberdeen, London, Sheffield and Cardiff. Wilson was much in demand by government departments for his special knowledge of pharmacology and toxicology. He thus contributed to the work of many scientific bodies. He was chairman for ten years of the British National Formulary Committee, and for eight years of the Advisory Committee on Pesticides and other toxic chemicals. In addition, he was a member of the Chemical Defence Advisory Board Biology Committee, the Medicines Commission, the British Pharmaceutical Codex Revision Committee, the International Academy of Environmental Safety (Member of Council for UK), and he was Privy Council Visitor to Examinations of the Pharmaceutical Society in England and Wales.

In 1971 he was awarded the CBE. He retired on 30th September 1974.

Wilson’s research colleague, D.V. Roberts, writes:
"From the time when, as a medical student, he witnessed the dramatic improvement brought about in a myasthenic patient by neostigmine, Andrew Wilson’s major medical and scientific interest was, in his own words, ‘the mystery which surrounds the cause of this disease’. In retrospect, his work falls into three phases, broadly corresponding with his sojourn in Sheffield, London and Liverpool, although he would have regarded it as a continuous attack on a number of fronts.

The Sheffied phase was characterised by a combined clinical and experimental investigation into the possible causes of myasthenia gravis. The results provided no evidence for excessively rapid destruction of acetylcholine, but supported the hypothesis that the blood of myasthenic patients contains a substance with neuromuscular blocking actions. Further work on the nature of this substance had to await the development of new techniques, but meantime Andrew Wilson studied the effects of anticholinesterase drugs on normal subjects and myasthenic patients. He clearly distinguished between the anticholinesterase and anticurare actions of neostigmine, so anticipating recent work on the modes of action of neostigmine. Of particular relevance to his later interest in pesticide toxicology was the observation that in normal subjects, chronic exposure to a long-acting anticholinesterase compound produced mental depression.

On arrival in Liverpool, Andrew Wilson initiated a series of investigations into the relation between the thymus gland and the hypothetical circulating substance of myasthenia. Then followed studies of the absorption, metabolism, detoxification and excretion of neostigmine and related substances. At the same time he established an objective electromyographic technique to facilitate the diagnosis and treatment of myasthenia gravis. He was particularly concerned with the adverse effects of chronic overtreatment with anticholinesterase compounds and saw very clearly the importance of this work in relation to monitoring the biological effects of such compounds in industrial workers. The continuation of this work by former colleagues is a powerful witness to the vitality of his own contribution."

Andrew Wilson was a man of smallish stature and rugged physiognomy. Though more than half his life was spent in England his crisp and concise diction never lost the attractive inflections of the West of Scotland; his speech was like his gait, symbolising eagerness for the active life and fixity of purpose. In childhood he had known the meaning of plain living and high thinking; and as a young man he achieved a foothold in science only by accepting a degree of austerity that was exceptional, even in the ‘thirties. There can be little doubt that these early vicissitudes largely determined the shape of his professional life: he relentlessly pursued the fulfilment of his plans for a career in science and medicine, and he seemed determined to show that his achievements would bear an inverse relationship to the meagre provision made for his pre-medical education.

As a teacher he was precise and discriminating; vague or slipshod presentation was to him anathema. These exacting standards are apparent in the Textbook of Applied Pharmacology of which he was joint author through four editions. His own research and that which he directed were similarly characterised by thoroughness and by an unwavering devotion to truth and logic. He never spared himself, and he felt entitled to demand high standards from those who elected to run in harness with him. But few men were more responsive to sincerity and a proper humility, and his heart warmed to the eager young academic who attacked a problem with zest and courage. The obverse of this coin was equally plain to see: Andew Wilson scorned superficiality; the sycophant and the imposter he dismissed with derision. His fearlessness in debate made him a formidable antagonist, but he was content in the belief that where the primary concern is with the eternal verities, true friendship survives the fleeting distress of controversy. Colleagues who were closest to Andew Wilson loved the man for his warm and kindly personality; to his patients he was a source of strength and understanding. He had unusual charm and, with intimate friends, he often displayed a boyish gaiety.

In his early days he was a rock climber and hill walker, and though he was obliged to abandon strenuous exercise because of indifferent health, he remained an assiduous traveller. He visited the USA and Canada many times in connection with teaching and research, and he was a frequent and welcome visitor in Japan, the West Indies and many European countries.

Andrew Wilson was married in 1939 to Margaret Hope, daughter of the Rev. Thomas Paterson who lived and worked in various parishes in Scotland. There were two daughters. He died at Blundellsands, Liverpool, only two days after his retirement.

Stanley Alstead

[, 1974, 4, 170; Lancet, 1974, 2, 909; Times, 8 Oct 1974; Inc. Liverpool Soc. Trop. Med., 1974-5, Annual Report]

(Volume VI, page 465)

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