Lives of the fellows

Richard Handley Wheeler

b.8 December 1918 d.21 May 2015
BA Cantab(1940) MB BChir(1942) MRCP(1948) DPM(1950) FRCP(1972) FRCPsych(1972)

Dick Wheeler was a consultant psychiatrist practising in Sussex for many years before finally retiring aged 78. He was born in Ryde, Isle of Wight, the son of Albert Martin Wheeler, an entrepreneurial schoolmaster, and Dorothy Wheeler née Handley. Having narrowly survived tuberculosis after leaving Canford as head of school in 1936, he read natural sciences as an exhibitioner at Queens’ College, Cambridge, before training at the London Hospital and enjoying playing in its rugby XV.

In 1943 he joined the RAMC, serving first in Sierra Leone (where he worked with colonial administrators to build a new hospital in Freetown), then India and Burma where, unusually for a non-combatant, he was mentioned in dispatches. It was only shortly before he died that he talked about the war to anyone and, even then, information about his experiences was limited to quirky flashbacks of memory, including shooting a peacock in the jungle and saying it tasted disgusting. He did, however, mention en passant that he served as a medical officer with the Chindits commando unit in Burma under Major General Orde Wingate.

After the war he decided to take up psychiatry. His first junior position was under the influence of Ian Skottowe [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VIII, p.467] at the Royal Buckinghamshire Hospital, Aylesbury. He was then at the Brompton Hospital, Belmont Hospital in Sutton and Banstead Hospital.

In 1955 he was appointed as a consultant psychiatrist at St Francis Hospital, Haywards Heath, Sussex, becoming physician superintendent in 1961. As a psychiatrist he demonstrated humility, a deep sense of justice, excellent diagnostic skills, with warmth and a delightfully subtle sense of humour. He was universally liked by the staff with whom he worked and by his patients and their carers. One of his trainees from the 1980s recalls: ‘An incident with Dick Wheeler I particularly remember is when an enraged psychotic patient lobbed a heavy glass ashtray in his face, frisbee-like from the other side of the room, during a ward round. He always seemed a kind, thoughtful man with a real interest in his patients so that incident was especially shocking.’

When he started as superintendent at St Francis Hospital it was very much an ‘asylum’, serving a large area, including Brighton and Hove. It was mainly thanks to him that the services moved forward into the community with a much less authoritarian approach and greater freedom for the in-patients. During his stewardship, the early part of which coincided with the introduction of neuroleptics and a bit later depot preparations, many patients who could otherwise have ended their days in the hospital were rehabilitated into a variety of community settings, including an active boarding out service and group homes. Some of the first community psychiatric nurses working in the area alongside the psychiatrists and social workers were part of the early multi-disciplinary teams. His main ally for most of these years was Alec Folkson, a very devoted doctor. They worked well alongside each other.

Dick continued in private practice at Ticehurst Hospital until 1996 and as a medical member of the Mental Health Review Tribunal (South East Thames area) until 1992.

He married Sheila Weare in April 1949. It was a very successful and happy marriage by any account. She survived him, together with their two sons and three daughters, and 11 grandchildren. In his long retirement he and Sheila lived in the village of Ditchling by the South Downs, where he actively pursued his deep interest in his garden, reading philosophy and spending time with his family.

James Wheeler

[Information from Michael Rosenberg]

(Volume XII, page web)

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