Lives of the fellows

William Gifford Wyllie

b.1 September 1889 d.24 October 1969
MB ChB Edin(1913) MD(1920) MRCPE(1920) MRCP(1922) FRCP(1932)

William Gifford Wyllie was the second son of Alexander Wyllie of Whitelea near Galashiels. From his courteous patriarchal father, with business interests in farming and agriculture, and gay, charming mother, née Helen Gifford Whitelaw, he inherited all the best attributes of the Scots.

He was educated at Edinburgh Academy and Edinburgh University. From there he graduated MB ChB in 1913. He obtained his MD and MRCP Edinburgh in 1920 and was elected FRCP London in 1932 and a Councillor in 1950. Soon after qualifying he was appointed house physician at the Royal Edinburgh Infirmary. This was in 1914 and the war had begun, so he joined the Navy as a temporary Surgeon Lieutenant and finally volunteered to go on that ill-fated expedition against the Bolsheviks. He lost his elder brother in France, and there was a sister to whom he remained greatly devoted throughout his life.

After demobilisation he came south and became resident medical officer at the National Hospitals for Nervous Diseases, Queen Square, from 1919-1922. The Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street, had been without a neurologist since Batten died in 1918 and deliberately appointed Wyllie registrar and pathologist in 1922, to train in paediatrics. In 1925 he was elected to the honorary staff. Meanwhile a Child Guidance Clinic had been established at the Hospital and he was the obvious man to be put in charge of it. When the Institute of Child Health was created he became the first Dean, and with Professor Alan Moncrieff was largely responsible for planning postgraduate teaching. He was a member of the Board of Governors from 1948 until he retired in 1951, when he was appointed honorary consulting physician.

For a period he was assistant physician to the Children’s Department at the Westminster Hospital, and for twenty years (1925-1945) consultant physician to the Maida Vale Hospital for Nervous Diseases. During the second World War he was in the EMS and was one of that happy band of doctors from many quarters who resided at Colindale Hospital, visiting the West Herts Hospital, to which most of Great Ormond Street had been evacuated. He rarely accepted high office; he was President of the Paediatric Section of the Royal Society of Medicine, but when it came to the British Paediatric Association he declined the Chair. His medical publications were written in lucid style. Chief among these were his comprehensive chapters on the Nervous System in Garrod, Batten and Thursfield’s Diseases of Children and Parsons and Baling’s Diseases of Infancy and Childhood. He illuminated the pathology of hemiplegia in childhood, encephalitis following infectious diseases, the morbid anatomy of Pink Disease, and was the first to recognize myasthenia gravis in the infant. But he also wrote on wider aspects of paediatrics, such as hepatic cirrhosis, the ‘periodic syndrome’ (jointly), idiopathic pulmonary haemosiderosis and ‘lax cardia’ amongst other subjects. His book, Recent Advances in Diseases of Childhood, with W.J. Pearson, should also be mentioned. He was an excellent and amusing teacher.

As the first paediatric neurologist he was a pioneer. This did not mean that he excluded other branches of paediatrics. On the contrary he was an extremely able children’s physician, and in his sympathetic and sensible approach to his patients seemed to understand them and particularly any psychological problems which were troubling them. This might have been a reflection of his own rather shy and retiring character. From this it would be wrong to assume that he was unsociable. With his superb dry humour and excellent conversation, no-one could be better company, but this was reserved for a few chosen friends. He was dapper in appearance and always well dressed. All his life he enjoyed quiet pleasures, travelling and everything that makes for gracious living. He was a lover of the arts and his bachelor establishment contained many fine pictures, good furniture and well chosen pieces of china, and when he retired his house was situated in a lovely garden, about which he was very knowledgeable. He was a lifelong member of the Junior Carlton Club and for a good many years a keen squash player. Later this gave way to fishing, gardening and bird-watching. In his earlier days, he was quite a man about town, and a connoisseur of good food and wine, which continued throughout life.

After retiring he tried settling in Berkshire, but was never really happy until he returned to his native Scotland and lived at Strathtay for a good many years with his boon companion, a poodle named Kim. Eventually, finding the house and garden too large for him as he became older, he moved to a flat in Edinburgh, but this respite was shortlived. He died at the age of 80 with a failing heart, having been a wise counsellor to many and a close companion to those who were fortunate enough to be his friends.

BE Schlesinger

[Brit.med.J., 1969, 4, 372; Lancet, 1969, 2, 1016; Times, 25 Oct 1969]

(Volume VI, page 480)

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