09 November 2009

Eric Wilkes

1920 – 2009

MBE (mil) OBE DL MA MB. BChir (Cantab)
MD (Hon, Sheff) FRCP, FRCGP, FRC Psych, DRCOG

Emeritus Professor of Community Care and General Practice, University of Sheffield

Consultant Emeritus, Trent Palliative Care Centre

Founder and Co-President, St Luke’s Hospice, Sheffield

Hon Vice-President, National Council for Hospice and Specialist Palliative Care Services

Eric Wilkes

Eric Wilkes, educated at Newcastle Royal Grammer 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 Dodie Rylands in his first term. He was well reviewed in the National Press and two years later became the 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 M15.

As the war approached its end, like so many of his generation, he had to replan his life. He has always been grateful to King’s College, Cambridge for letting him return to the university, this time to study medicine. He eventually 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 General Practitioner 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 informed from the fact that the percentage of Sheffield Medical Students opting for a career in General Practice became the highest in the Country.

He was invited on to the National Cancer Subcommittee and there he wrote the Wilkes Report on Terminal Care, published in 1980 by Her Majesty’s Stationary Office, London. He recommended greater attention be paid to the needs of dying patients and their relatives and the diversion of health care resources to the Community.

Twenty years later, the then Under-Secretary of State for Health, praised in Parliament the foresight of the report and the influence it had on altering the pattern of health care in Britain.

Eric, had by now become involved in the hospice movement. He opened the first modern unit to open its doors outside of London. The quality of bedside care at St Luke’s Hospice, Sheffield, gained a national reputation. It integrated Complimentary treatments with Conventional skills. He also opened the first Day Hospice, copied by other units 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. Although due to retire, they made him honorary Vice-President.

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

Cicely Saunders said that if she, in hospice terms, was the Archbishop of Canterbury, then Eric Wilkes was the Archbishop of York!

In an age of specialism, Eric 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 meet with the police members of the Drug Squad to discuss the evolving problems of Drug Abuse. 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 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. A frequent broadcaster, his series of Thought for The Day and Sunday Epilogue were well received. As were his lectures on Dr Johnson and Gibbon.

He has been awarded many honours. 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. He was awarded Honorary Degrees from both Sheffield Universities. He served as High Sherriff 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 in retirement a medical journalist called him the last of the great eccentrics. His family were the centre of his world and he enjoyed many years of retirement with them. He leaves his wife Jess, his three children and six grandchildren all much richer for having shared his love and life.

Eric died peacefully at home on Monday November 2nd 2009, in his 90th year. He will be much missed and always treasured.

Written by Ruth Ostrovskis-Wilkes