Obituary: Professor D. R. Wilkie

Roger Woledge
Sunday 14 June 1998 23:02 BST

IN 1947 D. R. Wilkie published a careful description of the mechanical performance of the human biceps muscle. Like much of the experimental work he published, this paper is still referred to today. The reason is simply that he had the knack of getting the right answers. His method of doing so was punctilious attention to detail of apparatus, of experiments, and of calculation. Whenever he encountered a discrepancy he would return to first principles as required until he had subdued the rebellious facts or artefacts. These methods gained him international renown, especially in the field of the supply of energy for muscular contraction.

Doug Wilkie was born into the family of a south London pharmacist, was educated at Bec School and Brighton Technical College and entered University College London (UCL) in 1940 to study Medicine on the shortened wartime course. He soon showed his outstanding ability as a student and scholar and won the Rockefeller Studentship which took him to Yale University for the last year of his medical education.

He returned to UCL for his medical and surgical house jobs and passed his MRCP in the same year, an exceptional achievement. Perhaps it was this brilliance which brought him to the attention of the Physiology Department of UCL, which offered him an assistant lectureship in 1945, when he was 23, and within a few years had promoted him to a Readership with responsibility for organising the teaching of Physiology to the medical class.

This department, which was to remain his academic home throughout his life, has a proud history. Principal among the luminaries at that time was the Nobel Laureate A.V. Hill, then in his sixties, but returning with enthusiasm to research interrupted by the war. The young Wilkie fell under his spell, taking up research on some of Hill's lifelong interests: the mechanics of muscular contraction, its relation to human performance and the application of thermodynamics to muscle contraction.

He also adopted something of Hill's style of research, characterised by application of basic principles from physics, mathematics and chemistry to the understanding of the behaviour of the object of study, whether man or muscle, together with ingenuity in the invention of methods. The normal practice was that the scientists would design and make their own equipment and hence understand in detail its functioning and skilfully cure its malfunctioning. Such work was an absorbing joy to Wilkie, a pleasure which lasted his whole life.

A.V. Hill, like Doug Wilkie himself, delighted in encouraging young scientists. He had within his influence then three brilliant young men, all destined for distinction in physiology: Eric Denton, Murdoch Ritchie and Doug Wilkie. It was probably "AV" who first referred to this dashing trio as the Three Musketeers.

Wilkie's research work expanded from muscle mechanics in several directions including the study of the possibilities of man as an aero-engine. In this field he published an important critical review of the power output of humans and was active in the committee which established the Kremer prizes for benchmarking man-powered flights.

His interest turned also to the question of the supply of energy for muscle contraction, a field in which he became an international star at a time of considerable progress. His 1960 review put this subject back on the thermodynamic rails from which, strangely, it had become derailed in the flurry of new discoveries in the 1930s. This review exemplifies perfectly both Wilkie's insight into scientific issues and his skills as a communicator and teacher. These inspired many a younger person to follow in these particular traditions of science and of course found expression too in his many contributions to the education of medical students at UCL.

Wilkie faced a difficult decision in 1969 when Andrew Huxley, then head of Physiology, stepped aside to take a Royal Society Chair. As Wilkie was by then holder of a personal Chair at UCL and remained a major player in medical education it was natural that he should be asked to lead the department. He filled that role adroitly for 10 years, but probably at times regretted his choice. He certainly missed the scientific bench work for which he had so much less time.

Fortunately during this period his interest in muscle energy supply led to a new enthusiasm: the application of Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy, first to the study of isolated muscles, in collaboration with George Radda and David Gadian in Oxford, then, with the paediatrician Os Reynolds, to the study of the brains of newborn babies.

As do we all, Wilkie had the "faults of his virtues" (a favourite phrase of his). His determination that his experiments should be unsullied by artefact (bugs) may have led to a few precious facts, not yet recognised as such, being rejected with the artefacts. His perfectionism certainly served him poorly in his administrative role, where first principles are in short supply. Perhaps because of this Wilkie would worry more than most about his decisions and this could have been a cause of unhappiness, even of ill-health.

The self-confidence in science that came from his own analyses of subjects from the basics was certainly a virtue because of the clarity of thought and writing that followed, but perhaps it was also a fault in scientific debate, in which Wilkie could be uncompromising. He sometimes lacked the ability to see merit in points of view very different to his own, and this may have limited the depth of his own understanding. It seems that friendships and the fellowship of other scientists, which Wilkie so valued, may have been shortened by this lack of perspective.

Doug Wilkie had a gregarious nature and was a charming and witty companion ready to discuss poetry, literature, sailing, photography, science, politics, medicine or whatever. In 1949 he married June Hill, who was also a medical student at UCL and a scientist. They divorced in 1982 but became close again: he survived her by little over a year. Their son Andrew is a medical scientist too.

Roger Woledge

Douglas Robert Wilkie, physiologist: born London 2 October 1922; Locke Research Fellow, University College London 1951-54, Reader in Experimental Physiology 1954-65, Professor of Experimental Physiology 1965-69, Jodrell Professor and Head of Physiology Department 1969-79 (Emeritus); FRS 1971; Jodrell Research Professor of Physiology, London University 1979-88 (Emeritus); married 1949 June Hill (died 1996; one son; marriage dissolved 1982); died London 21 May 1998.

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