Eric Wilkes: Physician whose 1980 report into the care of the terminally ill transformed social policy

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The Independent Online

Eric Wilkes, one of the country's most eminent experts in palliative care, was a physician whose interests and impact were wide-ranging. His 1980 report into the care of the terminally ill had a significant effect on social policy, and was later praised for its foresight.

Educated at Newcastle Royal Grammar School, went up to Cambridge in 1937, ostensibly to read Modern Languages but in fact to act. He was an enthusiastic amateur, but most unusually he was given the main part in a play produced by Dadie Rylands in his first term. He was well reviewed in the national press and two years later became president of the University Amateur Dramatic Club. The war prevented him taking this up and he never acted again.

In 1940 he was being trained as a Signalman at the Royal Signals depot at Catterick Camp in Yorkshire. Five years later, after service in India, the Middle East, Malta and Italy he was a 25-year-old decorated Lieutenant Colonel commanding a regiment in Germany. He spent most of his war in forward areas intercepting German radio traffic for MI5.

As the war approached its end, like so many of his generation he had to re-plan his life. He was always grateful to King's College, Cambridge for letting him return to the university, to study medicine. He qualified from St Thomas's Hospital, London, with various prizes, at the age of 32. He then spent 18 busy, happy years as a country GP in the village of Baslow in Derbyshire, until he was appointed Professor of Community Care and General Practice at Sheffield Medical School.

His impact may be judged by the fact that the percentage of Sheffield medical students choosing a career in general practice became the highest in the country.

He was invited on to the National Cancer Sub-committee and there he wrote the Wilkes Report on Terminal Care, published in 1980. He recommended that greater attention be paid to the needs of dying patients and their relatives and the diversion of health care resources to the Community. In Parliament 20 years later, the then Under-Secretary of State for Health praised the foresight of the report and the influence it had on altering the pattern of health care in Britain.

Wilkes had by now become involved in the hospice movement. He opened St Luke's Hospice, Sheffield, the first modern unit outside London. The quality of bedside care there – it integrated complementary treatments with conventional skills – gained St Luke's a national reputation. He also opened the first day hospice, which was copied up and down the country.

As co-chairman with the Duchess of Norfolk of the national charity Help the Hospices, he emphasised the vital importance of physical-symptom control and worked to improve the management and communication skills of hospice personnel. With the support of the Minister of Health he brought unity by convening and chairing the meetings between the independent hospices, the NHS units and the major charities concerned to form the National Council of Hospice and Palliative Care Services. The palliative-care pioneer Cicely Saunders said that if she, in hospice terms, was the Archbishop of Canterbury, then Wilkes was the Archbishop of York.

There was also a demand for training overseas and he paid several visits to Europe, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa and, in happier times, Zimbabwe.

In an age of specialism, Wilkes remained a determined generalist, conscious of the social responsibilities of the physician. He served as chairman of the Sheffield and Rotherham Association for the Care and Rehabilitation of Offenders; he gave a kick-start to the Sheffield Victim Support Scheme; he held meetings at the University, at which psychiatrists and social workers could consult members of the Drug Squad to discuss the evolving problems of drug abuse; and as Chairman of the Prevention Committee of the National Council of Alcoholism he encountered government indifference and a refusal to face a difficult future. He also served on the Council of Mind and on the Advisory Council of the Charities Aid Foundation.

A master of words, he was Public Orator to Sheffield University. He was a frequent broadcaster, and his contributions to Thought for The Day and Sunday Epilogue were well received, as were his lectures on Dr Johnson and Gibbon.

In addition to his military MBE he was awarded the OBE for service to Medicine. He was elected to the Fellowship of three Royal Medical Colleges – of Physicians, General Practitioners and Psychiatrists and awarded Honorary Degrees from both Sheffield Universities. He also served as High Sheriff of South Yorkshire and a Deputy Lieutenant of Derbyshire.

A happy family man, he was not interested in personal publicity and was rather taken aback when a medical journalist called him the last of the great eccentrics. His family was the centre of his world and he enjoyed many years of retirement with them.

Ruth Ostrovskis-Wilkes

Eric Wilkes, physician: born 12 January 1920; Professor of Community Care and General Practice, Sheffield University, 1973–83, then Emeritus; founder and co-president, St Luke's Hospice, Sheffield; MBE (military), 1943, OBE (civil) 1974; married 1953 Jessica Grant (two sons, one daughter); died Calver, Derbyshire 2 November 2009.