Lives of the fellows

William Whitaker

b.20 December 1919 d.13 January 2007
BSc Leeds(1941) MB ChB(1943) MD(1946) MRCP(1948) FRCP(1963)

Bill Whitaker was a well-loved physician cardiologist on the staff at Leeds General Infirmary. He was at the forefront of the development of invasive radiological techniques. Significant progress was rapidly made in Leeds by virtue of his personality and drive.

He was born in Keighley, Yorkshire. His formative years were spent at the local grammar school. Fellow pupils included Asa Briggs and Lord Hatch, but the cleverest pupil went on to be the local butcher. A lifelong love of the outdoors developed from holidays with the school spent in Kirkcudbright.

After qualifying in Leeds, he entered the Royal Army Medical Corps, serving for three years as captain. When stationed in Germany he developed a passion for fishing. On demobilisation he trained under Paul Wood [Munk’s Roll, Vol.V, p.456] at the National Heart Hospital, and from there he went to the University of Sheffield medical department as senior lecturer in medicine.

Cardiology at this time was still in its infancy and James Brown [Munk’s Roll, Vol.V, p.54], who in those days was considered one of the authorities on congenital heart disease, persuaded him to add his expertise to the newly formed regional cardiovascular unit at the Royal Northern Hospital. Then the unit of diagnostic cardiac catheterisation was born.

He was responsible for most of the original work on pulmonary hypertension in the UK in collaboration with the eminent pathologist Donald Heath. Pulmonary hypertension and congenital heart disease were his forte, an interest which he passed on to most of his juniors and registrars.

In 1956 he became consultant physician (cardiology) to Leeds Regional Hospital Board, where his professional skills were appreciated by his colleagues and particularly by his juniors. The department attracted trainees from all over the country and many more from abroad.

A lifelong workaholic, a demanding boss, and a man of few words, he was unable to suffer fools gladly. But his gruff exterior hid a heart of gold. His concern, understanding and kindness were immense. He was always supportive to his junior colleagues, who appreciated his warm relationship with patients and staff alike and his readiness to assist juniors in their quest for advancement in the academic field or in pursuit of clinical appointments. His great wit came from his brilliant powers of observation; his gems were always worth waiting for. As is always the case with rapidly developing techniques, seeking the cooperation of colleagues on the surgical front could on occasions lead to tensions, but his personality defused many potential situations and enabled progress to march forward, not only in Leeds but in the whole of the region.

His legacy remains for all to see in the availability and standard of cardiac and cardiac surgical services in Yorkshire and his wise council was greatly appreciated in the forums of the College. When second vice-president of the College, it was remarked that if he misbehaved his wife Elizabeth, who was High Sheriff for West Yorkshire at the time, could have cast him into a dungeon.

During his lifetime he wore many hats: doctor, consultant, humorist, lecturer, after-dinner speaker, husband, father, fisherman and rugby critic. For most of his life he resided in Wakefield. Scoring the try that resulted in Keighley Boys’ Grammar School beating Wakefield Grammar School was one of his fondest memories. In 1984 he exchanged his stethoscope for a fishing rod and his consulting room for the river bank and settled down with the help of the contents of a good wine cellar. Personally he did not keep to recommended dietary choices. Sausage and mash, or fish and chips, could on occasion be much enjoyed.

He was a patron of local artists and collected some of Jacob Kramer’s and Tom Ellis’s works. He greatly enjoyed driving cars of quality, and maintained a keen interest in politics throughout his life and, even when disabled following a stroke four years prior to his death, he continued to much enjoy Prime Minister’s Question Time on television.

He was married twice, the first time in 1951, the second in 1961. He had two sons, one step son and one step daughter. At his service of committal in Wakefield the final item was the playing of the Trout Quintet by Schubert.

P G Tannett

(Volume XII, page web)

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