Lives of the fellows

Douglas Robert Wilkie

b.2 October 1922 d.21 May 1998
FRS(1971) MD Yale (1943) MB BS Lond(1944) MRCP(1945) FRCP(1972)

Doug Wilkie's academic home was University College London (UCL), where he first enrolled in 1940 as a medical student. After a scholarship year at Yale University, where he gained his MD, Doug returned to University College Hospital in 1944, and obtained his membership of the College in the following year. His academic abilities were evident very early on, and he was soon appointed, at the age of 23, to an assistant lectureship in the physiology department of UCL, where he worked until his retirement in 1988.

Throughout this period, the mechanics and thermodynamics of muscle contraction formed the focus of Doug's research, and he became renowned in particular for his work on the chemical energetics of muscle contraction. He took over from Sir Andrew Huxley as head of UCL's physiology department in 1969, was elected to the fellowship of the Royal Society in 1971 and became a fellow of UCL and the College in 1972.

Doug's first scientific work at UCL was a study of voluntary human movement, forearm flexion - a piece of research that remains a standard in the field of muscle studies in vivo. He moved on to enquire about the sources of energy in muscle contraction, which brought into play his keen and enthusiastic interest in thermodynamics and biological energetics. One of his conclusions was that some as yet unknown biochemical processes (in addition to the splitting of phosphocreatine and the various associated processes) must be occurring in order to account fully for the energy output of contracting muscle. Many years later, the source of this 'missing' energy still remains unclear.

Doug was very much a hands-on scientists; he loved to design and build (and on occasion rebuild) the often ingenious equipment with which he would carry out his experiments. From the initial conception to eventual publication, his research was always meticulously and imaginatively thought through, executed, analysed and written up, so that the end product would be something of which he and his colleagues could be rightly proud. This was certainly true of his work with nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy. When, in 1974, Doug heard of research from Oxford showing that NMR spectroscopy could provide a novel non-invasive way of studying metabolites in intact living muscle, he jumped at the opportunity that this might provide for looking afresh at the biochemical processes associated with muscle contraction. He thus began a very fruitful collaboration with colleagues in Oxford, using NMR spectroscopy to examine exercising frog muscles. While this collaboration did not in the end shed light on the unexplained energy produced during contraction, it did elucidate a number of biochemical and bioenergetic processes associated with muscle fatigue.

One of the resulting papers was published in the journal Nature, prompting Doug to recall some earlier dealings that he had had with the journal, including a quotation that he had sent them from a poem by A E Houseman: "For nature, heartless, witless nature,/ Will neither care nor know." This had no doubt been unhelpful in relation to the editorial decision-making process, but it may well have cheered up some of the protagonists. This was Doug's way with science. He enjoyed it, he got fun out of it, and he was excited by it, and this sense of fun and excitement infected those who worked with him and learnt from him. He was serious about it too, and if sometimes he might appear over-zealous in his critical assessments of scientific work (which would include his own work as well as the work of others), above all he was open-minded and generous.

He had a keen sense of the historical context in which contemporary science was carried out, and his knowledge and authority encompassed many disciplines, from physics through biochemistry and physiology, to medicine. Indeed, the NMR spectroscopy research led him back to biomedicine, with novel and important applications at UCL into muscle and brain disease, including major new collaborative research using NMR to investigate the metabolic status of the brain in human infants following perinatal hypoxic-ischaemic episodes.

In 1949 Doug married June Hill, whom he had met when they were both medical students. They divorced in 1982 but came together again in later years. June died in 1996. They had one son, Andrew, also a scientist working in biomedical research.

David Gadian

[Biog.Mems.Fell.R.Soc.Lond. 47,481-495(2001)]

(Volume XI, page 621)

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