Lives of the fellows

Wilfrid George Oakley

b.23 August 1905 d.25 December 1998
MRCS LRCP(1929) MA Cantab(1931) MB BChir(1931) MRCP(1931) MD(1934) FRCP(1942)

Wilfrid Oakley was a pioneer in the clinical care of diabetes. In 1938 he was on the medical unit of St Bartholomew’s as first assistant when R D Lawrence [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.275], the initiator and driver of diabetes care in this country, recruited him to King’s. It was a major move. It set the diabetic department at King’s on a secure base and Oakley’s career on its outstanding course.

Oakley saw the understanding and care of diabetes transformed. His interest in the subject had been roused by George Graham [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.205], physician at Bart’s, a wise man whose contribution to the subject was perhaps under-appreciated in the medical world. At King’s, Oakley had the opportunity to develop his knowledge of diabetes and related subjects to the full. King’s had the great advantage of a separate department devoted to the subject and enthusiastic colleagues in other specialties - obstetrics, orthopaedics, opthalmology, paediatrics - who saw the chance provided by the rich and unique clinical experience of the diabetic department to develop their own research and clinical practice.

Perhaps the most dramatic and beneficial contribution was the work done by Lawrence and Oakley on pregnancy in the diabetic, showing the vital importance of good diabetic control. Building on this, Oakley, with Sir John Peel, reduced foetal mortality from 40 per cent to 5 per cent, a remarkable joint effort achieved by close co-operation between all specialties, rather than any single advance. The lesson that emerged from all Oakley’s work was the value of good control of blood glucose in all diabetics. Improvement was gradual but continuous, with new types of insulin, more frequent injections, self testing of blood glucose, more sensible dietary and other advice. It was a broadly-based attack on a condition that had been regarded as an unconquerable disease, leading to high risks of all sorts of ‘complications’, long and short term. Gradually it became clear that good control of diabetes could be achieved without loss of joy and independence in life and that it was compatible with long and healthy survival. This was the whole ethos of the King’s diabetic department led by Wilfrid Oakley.

After going to King’s, Oakley confined himself almost entirely to his specialty, although for a time he was physician to St Andrew’s Hospital, Dollis Hill. His appointment at King’s, as was common in those days, was very much part time. For the rest he was extremely busy in private practice, which was centred on 149 Harley Street and the London Clinic. He was devoted to his patients and worked extremely hard. However busy he was with his private patients he never neglected his NHS practice. Not for him the holidays, international travel, or numerous committees, which claimed so much of his colleagues’ time. He was a dedicated and faithful physician. To him the clinical and scientific challenge of his specialty was a completely satisfactory profession. He was perfectly at home with scientific colleagues, especially the biochemists, whose interests overlapped with his. Some less sophisticated colleagues, seeing Wilfrid as the archetypal part time consultant physician, were apt to be amusingly discomfited when they discovered he was also a well informed clinical scientist.

He wrote two text books with his colleagues and many papers and reviews. He was a prime mover in the creation of the medical and scientific section of the British Diabetic Association, a most important innovation, and was its third chairman from 1966.

Wilfrid was the son of a clergyman, born in Liverpool and brought up in Durham. He went to Caius College, Cambridge, before going to Bart’s, and stroked the College boat. Although he was not a sportsman after his university days he kept his trim, erect figure and his alert, incisive mind into his nineties.

His wife Hermione, an almoner whom he decided to marry a few days after he arrived at Bart’s, predeceased him after some years of disability due to stroke. During this time he looked after her devotedly, indeed perfectly. They had one son, Nigel, who became a consultant physician at St George’s Hospital and a Fellow of the College.

Wilfrid Oakely was an admirable physician and colleague. He was always good company, largely thanks to a sharp, often self-directed, sense of humour. A good example; when his fame was such that he was consulted by many of the great, I asked him if General de Gaulle had diabetes. He replied, "I don’t think he can have, I have not been consulted".

His decline was gradual and nearly free of disability and suffering so that he remained excellent company until the end, which came at the age of 93. He was greatly helped by the devotion of his admirable secretary, Lily Jacobs.

D A Pyke

[Brit.med.J., 318,1999,1014]

(Volume XI, page 424)

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