Lives of the fellows

Eric Wilkes

b.12 January 1920 d.2 November 2009
MBE(1943) OBE(1974) MB BChir(1952) MRCP(1954) DObst RCOG(1955) FRCGP(1972) FRCP(1974)

Eric Wilkes was professor of community care and social practice at Sheffield University and one of the founders of the modern hospice movement. Born in Gateshead, County Durham, he was the son of George Julius Wilkes, a company director, and his wife, Doris née Pearlman, whose father, a shopkeeper, died very young. Educated at the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, he went up to King’s College, Cambridge in 1937, ostensibly to study modern languages but actually intending to act. An enthusiastic amateur, he was given the lead in a play produced by Dadie Rylands in his first term and received enthusiastic reviews in the national press. Two years later he was elected president of the university’s amateur dramatic club but the Second World War intervened and he never acted again, although he showed his declamatory skills much later in his career when he became public orator to Sheffield University while he was on their academic staff.

He trained as a signalman at the Royal Signals depot at Catterick Camp, Yorkshire in 1940 and then spent five years serving in India, the Middle East, Malta and Italy. Spending most of the war in forward areas intercepting German signals, he ended his service commanding a regiment in Germany as a lieutenant colonel. On demobilisation he was grateful to King’s for permitting him to return and, this time, he studied medicine at Cambridge and at St Thomas’ Hospital. He qualified, aged 32, in 1952 and spent two years doing house jobs at St Thomas’s and then Lambeth Hospital, before joining a GP practice in Baslow in Derbyshire.

After 18 happy years as a GP, he was appointed professor of community care and general practice at Sheffield University Medical School in 1972 and medical director of what was then called St Luke’s Nursing Home. His influence was such that the number of students choosing to specialise in general practice rose sharply. As a member of the National Cancer Sub-Committee, he published the Wilkes Report on Terminal Care (London, HMSO, 1980). In the report, he emphasised that more attention needed to be paid to the terminally ill and the requirements of their relatives. It showed his prescience that, more than 20 years later, the report was praised in Parliament for its influence on health care practice in the UK. He transformed St Luke’s into a modern hospice – the first outside London. Treatment was a mixture of conventional medicine and complementary therapy and day stays were initiated. As co-chairman of the charity Help for Hospices he worked to improve the skills of hospice staff. He also endeavoured to improve communication between the various charities, hospices and NHS units and was instrumental in setting up the National Council of Hospice and Palliative Care Services.

He felt strongly that the physician should observe social responsibilities. Serving as chairman of the Sheffield and Rotherham Association for the Care and Rehabilitation of Offenders, he also helped initiate the Sheffield victim support scheme. He held meetings at the university during which psychiatrist and social workers could discuss the problems of drug abuse with the police and was chairman of the prevention committee of the National Council on Alcoholism. A council member for the mental health charity Mind, he was also on the advisory council of the Charities Aid Foundation. A frequent broadcaster, he often contributed to Thought for the Day and the Sunday epilogue, and gave lectures on Dr Johnson and Gibbon. Over the years he made many training visits to Europe, the USA, Australia, New Zealand and, at one time, Zimbabwe.

Among many honours, he was awarded the MBE for services to medicine, the fellowship of three Royal medical colleges and was made High Sherriff of South Yorkshire and a deputy Lieutenant of Derbyshire.

He enjoyed fishing, gardening, bird watching and archaeology and greatly appreciated good food and wine. The theatre was another passion, harking back to his student days.

In 1953 he married Jessica Mary (‘Jess’) née Grant, whose father, Sydney Thomas, was a company director. They had two sons and a daughter, Ruth Ostrovskis-Wilkes. When he died peacefully at home in his 90th year, after many years of happy retirement, Jess survived him, together with their children and six grandchildren.

RCP editor

[The Guardian 19 November 2009 - accessed 14 May 2015; The Independent 7 December 2009 - accessed 12 March 2015; University of Sheffield alumni obituaries - accessed 20 November 2009]

(Volume XII, page web)

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