Lives of the fellows

Graham Malcolm Wilson

b.16 April 1917 d.15 April 1977
MB ChB Edin(1940) MRCPE(1942) MRCP(1946) BSc(1947) FRCPE(1947) MD(1950) FRCP(1956) DSc(1964) FRCPG(1967) FRSE(1969)

Graham Wilson, regius professor of medicine in the University of Glasgow, died at the untimely age of 59. He was a remarkable man.

Born at Cheam in Surrey, the son of an Edinburgh botanist, Dr Malcolm Wilson, he married Elizabeth Bell Nicoll, also a doctor and the daughter of a doctor. They had six children, two of whom are now doctors. His brother, Cedric, was professor of pharmacology at Trinity College, Dublin. Graham Wilson was educated in Edinburgh, first at the Academy and later with exceptional distinction at the University, where he gained the Ettles scholarship, a BSc with first class honours, an MB with honours and the Leslie gold medal, an MD, also with gold medal and later a DSc. In 1946 he became a member of the London College of Physicians, in 1956 a fellow. He was Bradshaw lecturer at the College in 1962. In 1969 he was made fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

After qualification he became house surgeon and house physician at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, joining the RAF medical service in 1941. He was in North Africa at the height of the campaign in 1943. On discharge in 1946 he worked with Professor Drennan in Edinburgh for a while, and later went south to London, joining GW Pickering in the medical unit at St Mary’s Hospital. He then moved to Sheffield where in quick succession he was promoted lecturer (1950), senior lecturer (1951) and professor of pharmacology and therapeutics (1954). In 1967 he made his final move to Glasgow as regius professor of medicine, continuing the Sheffield tradition as a training school for Glasgow professors, Sir Edward Wayne and Sir Andrew Watt-Kay having moved before him from Sheffield to regius chairs in Glasgow.

Graham Wilson had a very wide range of interests. His research began after demobilization with Drennan in Edinburgh, and then with GW Pickering in London, working on the physiology and pathology of the peripheral circulation. He collaborated with Bradford Hill in an early trial of drugs acting on the peripheral circulation. Later he became more interested in research on endocrine disease. The period 1952-1953 was spent at Harvard with Francis Moore, developing new methods for the measurement of body electrolytes and body water. He was a prolific scientific writer.

Some of his interests were unusual in a professor of medicine, many showing the spirit of a reformer. He was an active member of the Todd Royal Commission on medical education, whose influence in reforming the teaching of medical students is still with us. Within his own department he stimulated a lot of research into medical education: new techniques for audio visual aids were developed, and methods of examining medical students were compared and tested. He also believed that research into the operation and efficiency of the health service was neglected compared with the efforts spent on research into causation of disease. A health service research unit was set up at the Western Infirmary with the aid of the Nuffield Provincial Hospital Trust and the Scottish Home and Health Department, and Graham Wilson was its honorary director.

The proportion of women training in medicine increased markedly during the 1960s. Graham Wilson saw little point in this increase if the newly qualified woman could not reconcile marriage and child-bearing with medical practice. He created part-time medical posts specifically for women. It was a successful move.

Perhaps his most important contributions were in clinical pharmacology. He was one of the founders of the subject, recognizing earlier than others that a specialist discipline was needed to deal with the increasing use of drugs and their actions, interactions and idiosyncrasies. He encouraged the formation of new departments of clinical pharmacology. He did a lot to bridge the uneasy gap between the pharmaceutical industry and clinicians. Clinicians, he felt, needed to know more of the problems of industry, and industry needed better methods of assessing the safety and efficacy of drugs. With support from GD Searle Ltd he created a new post in his department for a clinician working part-time in industry and part-time in academic medicine. It is sad that he did not fulfil completely one of his most enduring ambitions: to reform and reset the standards by which the safety of medicines are judged. He felt that too much reliance was placed on toxicological studies in animals, too little on monitoring the long term effects of new drugs in man. He became chairman of the Safety of Medicines Committee in 1976 but within only three months developed the first symptoms of his final illness.

He was a lively friendly man, enormously hardworking. Six active children, a busy successful wife, elderly relatives and frequent visitors made their house in Westbourne Gardens seem like an elegant railway station. He enjoyed the activity. Their cottage on the shore of Loch Sunart was typical of the family. Graham built it himself from sections transported with great difficulty from Sheffield, and on a site which was completely inaccessible except by Land Rover or boat. He was also a fine fisherman and keen gardener.

As a personality he was an unusual mixture: bold and cheerful with professional contacts and with friends, he was an obvious leader at scientific meetings, in committees and with his family. But he was also shy and reserved personally. He was less good at social gatherings, and clearly he did not like cocktail parties. He was an interesting man to be with, widely read and a good and animated talker. He died a few hours short of his 60th birthday, after a long and painful illness which he diagnosed correctly and then bore with a mixture of curiosity and extreme fortitude.

AF Lever

[, 1977, 1, 1363; Lancet, 1977, 1, 1017; Times, 19 Apr 1977]

(Volume VII, page 612)

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