Obituary: Professor Bill Whimster
Saturday 01 February 1997
Whimster belied the popular image of the pathology professor as a dour uncommunicative figure, closeted in a dingy post-mortem room. But there was much more to him than mere bubbling personality and boyish charm. He helped to revolutionise medical communication and teaching, using new formats such as computers and television as well as improving the old ones. His research, with its emphasis on precise measurement of the size of individual tumour cells under the microscope, is already altering the way doctors think about cancer.
Whimster hated pigeon-holes. "I'm not a laboratory rat," he would cry as he strode off the boring but obvious Pennine Way into the boggy peat, and his career showed a predilection for knight's moves.
Rather than serve in the armed forces, he chose to spend time in the colonial service. At first he went to Fiji and then to Nuie Island, in the New Zealand Island Territories. Here he was on his own, at once surgeon (operating with an orderly as rag-and-bottle anaesthetist and with Pye's Surgical Handicraft stuck up on a shelf), public health officer, forensic examiner, and obstetrician - delivering his own first child.
Had the colonies continued to exist, I suspect that Whimster would have been happiest doing such general duties. He had done more varied house jobs than most doctors - and, even much later, after he had entered his specialty, he was also to pass the difficult examination for the Membership of the Royal College of Physicians, a rare attainment for a pathologist.
On his return from the Pacific he trained as a general pathologist at Lewisham Hospital, and then moved to the Royal Free Hospital as a registrar in haematology. During his next lateral move, into morbid anatomy at the same hospital, he returned to the former colonies, when he was seconded to the university in Jamaica. By this time he had started research into lung diseases, using the technique of examining slices of whole lung which he was to make his own. This work provided in particular more evidence for the harmful effects of smoking on the lung, and he continued it on his retum to Britain in appointments at the Brompton Hospital and the Medical Research Council's Air Pollution Research Unit at Bart's.
In 1974 he moved finally to King's, widening his research to include morphometry, the new technique for accurate measurement of individual cells, particularly those in venous types of cancer, and he was to organise several important international conferences on the subject.
He was also hooked on making medical communication better. He served on a Nuffield committee for improving communication between doctors and patients, was a pioneer in teaching better medical writing all over the world, and did much to raise the standards of undergraduate and postgraduate medical teaching. For the last nine years he had been editor of the lively Bulletin of the Royal College of Pathologists. And, convinced that too many doctors forget the lessons of the past, he was to collapse and die at King's College, Strand, while giving the first of a new series of lectures on the importance of medical history to current thinking.
In some ways Whimster remained the bolshie Sedbergh schoolboy - the school chosen by his medical parents to get him away from Nottingham. Certainly he loved unorganised sport - downhill skiing and windsurfing - and was never happier that when messing about on his barge. He hated pomp, and, though a natural joiner, would resign from any institution whose prime motives seemed to be to give its senior members gold medals. Yet, he had an admiration for echoes of the past: the lavish examiners' lunch at the Apothecaries; the presidential election at the Royal College of Physicians; the seedy grandeur of the Athenaeum. But rarely can a whole teaching hospital (including nurses, porters and clerical officers) have been as devastated by the death of an individual who only a generation ago they would have placed in a second or third tier of importance.
William Frederick Whimster, histopathologist: born Nottingham 7 June 1934; Senior Lecturer in Morbid Anatomy, King's College School of Medicine and Dentistry, London University 1974-83, Reader 1983-91, Professor of Histopathology 1991-97; married 1958 Sibyl Wallace (two sons, two daughters); died London 24 January 1997.
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