Lives of the fellows

Cyril Henry Wyndham

b.7 May 1916 d.3 February 1987
MB ChB Wits(1940) FRS(SA 1966) DSc(1968) MRCP(1946) FRCP(1973)

Cyril Wyndham was born in Maraisburg, South Africa, of a mining family. His father, Herbert Henry Wyndham, was a metallurgist and came from Bristol, England. Cyril received his secondary education at Maritzburg College, where one of his form masters was Alan Paton. He gained a reputation as an athlete, and then went on to study medicine at the medical college of Witwatersrand University, where he became the top student of his class, graduating with several prizes and awards.

He intended embarking on a career in cardiology but the second world war intervened and in 1942 he joined the South African Medical Corps, being seconded to the RAMC, 1943-46, serving in Italy at the 64th British General Hospital.

After the war, with the encouragement of Sir Basil Schonland, he carried out postgraduate work in London and Oxford, where the legendary Sir Wilfrid le Gros Clark set him in the direction of human applied physiology. On his return to South Africa he was appointed director of the Human Sciences Laboratory of the Chamber of Mines Research Organization. From 1962-63 he served on secondment as professor pf physiology at the University of Witwatersrand.

Through his work on solving the physiological problems faced by miners, Wyndham became the leading international expert on human thermal physiology. The fact that nowadays one-third of a million mineworkers can work in safety under stress in deep-level and often hot environments underground is largely due to the work of Cyril Wyndham’s team. By 1975 he had published over 250 papers on applied physiology, participated in numerous international meetings, lectured widely by invitation from the USA to India and from Sweden to Malawi, and launched the careers of numerous young scientists, many of whom were later to hold chairs at universities in South Africa and overseas.

Cyril retired from the Chamber of Mines at the age of 60 and took up a second career, which had previously been a hobby; he joined the Medical Research Council as an epidemiologist at the Institute for Biostatistics. In the second phase of his research career his major contributions were to cardiovascular disease and its epidemiology in South African populations. His investigations confirmed the serious extent of coronary heart disease among the economically active white and Indian communities, and these observations provided strong support for the launching of a national heart effort by the MRC which led to the establishment of the Heart Foundation of Southern Africa.

Subsequently he evaluated leading causes of death among children under five years of age in the different ethnic groups. His last publications contained comparisons of mortality rates for cancer in various populations. He particularly regretted the inadequacy of death certification for blacks, a misgiving now felt universally with regard to death certification data in general. His observations raised important challenges regarding the means, commensurate with resources, that could be employed to combat diseases of underprivilege, especially among the young and, conversely, diseases of destructive lifestyles as they prevail among the prosperous.

Cyril Wyndham received many honours and accolades, including the MRC’s gold medal, 1985, and an honorary DSc from his university.

Cyril’s total absorption and personal participation in experimental studies were impressive, as was his familiarity with and acceptance by black and white miners alike. Another of his early and sustained interests concerned the nutrition of blacks. He would make house to house visits in Soweto enquiring, and seeing, just what foodstuffs there were in the family pot. No one had done this previously - and who has done it since? Cyril had deep feelings about the splendid devotion of physicians and helpers in black rural hospitals; on occasion he would stand in to allow a tired and harassed medical officer a weekend off. Indeed, man’s humanity to man is a matter for angel’s rejoicing.

Cyril Wyndham will be remembered not only for his exceptional contribution to medical research but also for his kind, fatherly nature which endeared him to everyone with whom he worked; his feeling for and understanding of the problems of others; his total commitment and unswerving devotion to his work - but never at an unfair cost to others. In later years he faced up to the ravages of a terminal disease, accepting each new onslaught with fortitude, a cheerful smile and no word of complaint.

In 1942 he had married Winifred Francis and they had four children, three daughters and a son. They all survived him.

ARP Walker
Sir Gordon Wolstenholme

[SA Medical Journal, 21 Mar 1987,409; MRC News, 21 Mar 1987,2]

(Volume VIII, page 556)

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