Obituary: Dr John Wilkinson

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The Independent Culture
A 1991 BBC radio documentary about the haematologist John Wilkinson, entitled 33 Lines in "Who's Who", revealed some amazing claims to fame: during the Second World War he trained sea-lions to defuse bombs; he had devised the zip fly; and he once had to de-louse the entire Sadler's Wells corps de ballet. The programme caused some surprise to friends and colleagues who had known him for years, as he had kept these and his other achievements relatively quiet.

Wilkinson was born in Oldham, Lancashire, in 1897. His mother died when he was two, so he and his brother Ted moved to Blackpool to live with his father's two sisters and his grandfather. To say the least, this move was fortuitous. Having spent a winter's day fishing at Garstang in 1908, John and his friends called at the local newsagents, where the owner, Frank Raynor, showed John a copy of the first of the six fortnightly parts of Scouting for Boys that had just been published.

Written by the national hero Robert Baden-Powell, in the weeks after his experimental camp on Brownsea Island, the book described that life of adventure and fun that could be had by all "Scouts". Baden-Powell hoped that through these activities he could train a boy's character and instil in him a base of moral values by which to live, thus improving the moral fabric of society. For John Wilkinson it was 4d well spent and would change his life forever.

Overnight he copied out parts of the book, which he gave to his friends the following day. They too were so inspired by the game of Scouting that they immediately formed the Lion Patrol of what later became the 1st Blackpool Scout Troop. Frank Raynor also got involved - the boys invited him to become their Scoutmaster, the first in Blackpool.

Wilkinson led his brother Scouts with great enthusiasm and he himself became one of the first King's Scouts after this badge was introduced in 1910 following a suggestion by King Edward VII. Later on he became a Scoutmaster, District Scoutmaster and Assistant County Commissioner. But his Scouting career did not end there.

Fired with his enthusiasm for Scouting, Wilkinson joined the first ever Scoutmasters' training course run at Gilwell Park, Essex, in September 1919. After 11 days' intensive study of Scoutcraft at the Scout Movement's newly acquired training centre, Baden-Powell himself personally presented Wilkinson with his Wood Badge, two small pieces of wood on a bootlace, worn as a necklace. It is believed that Wilkinson was the first ever to receive the award, as the other participants on the course had not completed all the other requirements (such as in-service training) to receive the badge.

Baden-Powell firmly believed that the future success of the Scouting movement would be dependent on training adults as leaders. He was therefore delighted to learn that Wilkinson, on his return to Cheshire, led a leader training course at Alderley Park in 1920, the first Wood Badge course to be held outside Gilwell. He was appointed a Deputy Camp Chief (an Assistant County Commissioner for Adult Training) and also helped to develop Scouting in Ireland and Albania.

It was with personal regret that in 1924 he had to give up most of his Scouting commitments as the demands of his medical career increased, but his involvement with and love of Scouting continued for the rest of his life. He served later as President of Blackpool Old Scouts, Alderley District President and Vice-President of Cheshire County Scouts. These were not token appointments; Wilkinson took an active interest in all that was going on up until his death.

In 1992, the Chief Scout awarded Wilkinson the Scout Association's highest award for good service, the Silver Wolf, in recognition of services of the most exceptional character in Alderley over many years. At the Gilwell Reunion in 1994, the annual gathering of leaders who hold the Wood Badge, when Gilwell Park celebrated its 75th birthday in the hands of the Scouts and the 75th anniversary of that first course, "Wilkie" came back to Gilwell and was the guest of honour.

After secondary education at Arnold School, Wilkinson had enrolled in 1913 at Manchester University to read Chemistry. At the outbreak of the First World War he was not allowed to join the Forces because of the nature of his studies, but in 1916 he managed to join the Royal Naval Air Service, where his scientific skills were put to full use. He saw action at the Battle of Zeebrugge in 1918 while serving on HMS Vindictive. His name was put forward for the ballot for the award of the Victoria Cross for his conduct on the Mole, part of the sea defence wall of Zeebrugge harbour. According to official accounts, Vindictive came alongside the Mole and Wilkinson ran along it, throwing bombs into the U-boats. However, only one VC could be awarded per action and he was not chosen.

At the end of the war, Wilkinson resumed his chemical studies, gaining a first class degree which led to a career of medical research specialising in blood and blood diseases. He became the recognised leading authority on the subject, and his meticulous research led to his discovery of the cure for pernicious anaemia. He is also credited with being the first doctor to experiment with chemotherapy. The official history of Christie Cancer Hospital in Manchester, where he was honorary consulting haematologist, records his use of war gases (including nitrogen and mustard gas) on cancer patients, with encouraging results.

His work with the Navy to train sea-lions in the defusing of bombs was not an entire success. The sea-lions were carefully trained in their task, and then released into the sea from their specially designed harnesses. However, instead of following their training, they would swim away and never be seen again.

He became Consulting Physician and Haematologist at the University and Royal Infirmary of Manchester and then, from 1947, Director of the Department of Haematology.

His writings appeared in many medical and scientific journals, both British and foreign. He contributed sections on blood diseases, anaemias and leukaemias to the British Encyclopaedia of Medical Practice in 1936 and 1950, and in yearly supplements since then, and to the Encyclopaedia of General Practice in 1964. He edited Modern Trends in Diseases of the Blood in 1955 and 1975.

Despite his official retirement from Manchester University in 1962, he continued to act as a consultant and was appointed Medical Referee in connection with the control of radiation exposure from 1962 until 1976. He gave the Samuel Gee Lecture at the Royal College of Physicians in 1977 and was still working as a general practitioner until his nineties.

He married Marion Crossfield, a Major in the Women's Royal Army Corps, in 1964, but separated from her a few years ago.

Even when well into his nineties, Wilkinson certainly had no intention of giving up life or not living life to the full. Only a few years ago he had a new suit made with a couple of extra pairs of trousers as, in his considered opinion, they always wore out first. And in the last two years, following his separation from his wife, he had a new house built in Knutsford, in Cheshire.

He was a keen motorcyclist, and would travel long distances by bike. During the Twenties he found buttons inconvenient on his motorcycling gear and had a zip incorporated into the design of his moleskin trousers, long before commercial manufacturers took up the idea. There were other loves in his life too - motoring and tropical fish as well as his collection of apothecary jars. Wilkinson was the world authority on these jars and in the months before his death donated the entire collection to the Thackray Medical Museum in Leeds for display in a new gallery named after him.

Michael Loomes

John Frederick Wilkinson, haematologist: born Oldham, Lancashire 10 June 1897; Lecturer in Systematic Medicine, Manchester University 1934- 48, Reader in Haematology and Head of the Department of Haematology 1948- 62, Medical Referee 1962-76; married 1964 Marion Crossfield; died Knutsford, Cheshire 13 August 1998.

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