Lives of the fellows

Graham Selby (Sir) Wilson

b.10 September 1895 d.5 April 1987
MRCS LRCP(1916) MB BS Lond(1916) MD(1919) DPH(1920) MRCP(1920) FRCP(1930) Hon LLD Glasg(1962) Hon FRCPath(1972) FRS(1978)

Graham Wilson, known all over the world as ‘GS’, was born in Newcastle but, his family having moved south, was educated at Epsom College and Charing Cross Hospital medical school, where he came under the influence of W W C Topley [Munk's Roll, Vol.IV, p.561] who was to be his inspiring colleague from 1919 to 1941. Soon after qualification in 1916, Wilson joined the Army and worked in the laboratories at Kasauli, India. He returned to England to work first as a demonstrator in bacteriology at Charing Cross Hospital medical school, from 1919-22, and then moved, with Topley, to Manchester as lecturer in bacteriology; together they moved to the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in 1927, where Wilson later became professor of bacteriology applied to hygiene. Having been intimately concerned with the planning and establishment of the Emergency Public Health Laboratory Service, he succeeded as director when W M Scott was killed in an air-raid in 1941. He directed the emergency service and its peace time successor until 1963.

Wilson’s contributions fell into three parts: his prewar work on the gradings and pasteurization of milk, his authorship with Topley of what is arguably the best textbook of microbiology in the world, and the effective creation of the Public Health Laboratory Service.

The studies on the hygiene of milk were of crucial importance in justifying the general introduction of pasteurization, and were thus instrumental in the near total eradication of childhood tuberculosis.

The first edition of Topley and Wilson’s Principles of bacteriology and immunity, London, E Arnold & Co., was published in 1929 and set standards in clarity and critical argument that can rarely have been equalled. The book soon established itself as the major bacteriological textbook in English; even after six subsequent editions it has few real rivals. Wilson continued to edit successive editions, first with A A Miles (q.v.) and later with M T Parker. Until the last few months of his life he was sending comments and material for the next edition, often - as M T Parker writes - ‘...on the backs of old letters or circulars. Many were of daunting erudition and all - right up to the most recent - beautifully composed.’

With Topley, Wilson was involved in the establishment of the postgraduate diploma in bacteriology courses, both in Manchester and London, which played a very large part in establishing high standards for the practice of medical microbiology in Britain, and indeed in many other countries.

The idea of the emergency public health laboratory service, to be established in the event of war, was almost certainly Topley’s - who saw the need for such a service irrespective of war and who had, with Wilson, been drawing attention to that need in his teaching at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Wilson inherited and developed Topley’s plans and, with the administrative support of A Landsborough Thomson in the Medical Research Council, he created a network of laboratories designed to help in the control of wartime epidemics and, when they did not occur, in control of the infectious diseases normally present in the community. Wilson’s belief that public health bacteriology was different from hospital bacteriology, with which he was never really familiar, meant that the Public Health Laboratory Service developed somewhat separately from the rest of the NHS laboratory services, with both advantages and drawbacks. But Wilson’s insistence on the highest technical standards and his abilty to establish a coherent team out of a collection of individualists, most of whom he had selected himself without reference to committees, but with the use of a personal interview of awe-inspiring duration and austerity, did create a remarkably successful organization, not only in providing the routine services but also in conducting large scale collaborative research. His whole administration was essentially personal, and included annual visits to almost all of the 50-60 laboratories, often reached by bicycle.

Wilson’s achievements were recognized by many prizes and honorary degrees from institutions worldwide. He was knighted in 1962, and elected FRS in 1978.

Wilson did not reveal much of his private life to his professional friends, and indeed he cannot have had much time for non-professional activities. He married Mary Joyce Ayrton in 1924 and they had one son and adopted another. His wife died in 1976.

He was a successful gardener, a knowledgeable connoisseur of claret and of church architecture, and a determined cyclist. Once, when a colleague offered to take the Underground in order to see him, he replied: ‘I’ll take my bicycle to you; it will be much quicker.’

Wilson was also sustained by a strong religious faith and was held in great respect and affection by many with whom he came into contact, and those whom he had helped in various ways.

Like his father, Ralph Graham Ward Wilson, he achieved the age of 91 and for the last 13 years of his life he was senior Fellow of the College and had the privilege of thanking the president on the occasion of his annual address, a task he accomplished with enviable eloquence.

Sir Robert Williams

[Brit.med.J., 1987,294,1039,1238; 1988,296,279-80; Lancet, 1987,1,992; The Times, 6 & 18 Apr 1987; Biog.Mems.of Fellows of the Roy.Society, 1988,34,887-919; J.Roy.Coll.Path., Sept 1985,5-6; MOH Public Health Lab.Service Year Book 1964,15; The Evening News, 1 Nov 1962]

(Volume VIII, page 544)

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