Robert Ford Whelan 1922-1984

Written by W.E. Glover.


Robert Ford Whelan was born in Belfast on 22 December, 1922. His father, Robert Henry Whelan, born in Dublin of Kilkenny parentage, was the youngest of seven children as was his mother, Dorothy Ivy Whittington, who was born in Shanklin, Isle of Wight. His paternal grandfather, father and all but one paternal uncle were civil servants in the Imperial Civil Service in Dublin. On the formation of the Irish Free State in 1922, his father, being Protestant, transferred to the newly-formed Government of Northern Ireland and served in Customs and Excise and Finance, becoming Registrar in the Ministry of Finance before retirement (about 1966). Bob in later years was proud to attribute his own systematic and tidy habits to his father's example. His mother died in 1964 and his father in 1974. Bob not only inherited these habits but was also motivated by admiration for his father and a desire to emulate him. He also had great affection for his mother. Each year the family went to the Isle of Wight to spend the long Civil Service vacation with his mother's relatives. These holidays were an important and happy aspect of his upbringing and ensured that his mother's Englishness played a part in the formation of his character. He had a breadth of outlook and a tolerance of other men's beliefs which stemmed from this mix of cultures within his own family. When asked which part of Ireland he came from he would say, 'I was conceived in the South and born in the North', and if asked more generally where he was from the answer would be 'I have an Irish father, an English mother and a Scottish wife'. He had one brother called Norman just one year younger. They looked alike and were sometimes assumed to be twins. However, as they grew up their paths diverged and though fond of each other they were very dissimilar and did not have much in common. Norman also died suddenly, but at the even younger age of 42 in 1966. He was a BSc in Electrical Engineering and worked in research for the Marconi company.

Bob Whelan married Helen Elizabeth MacDonald Hepburn (Betty) on 31 July, 1951. Betty's father, John Hepburn, was the Managing Director of an engineering company in Belfast but he and her mother, Helen (née MacDonald) were born and bred in Scotland. They had three children. Robert John, currently lecturer in Biological Science at the University of Wollongong, was born in London in 1952, Elizabeth Janet, was born in Belfast in 1954. The youngest, Jack Henry, was born in Adelaide in 1960.

Bob was educated at Bloomfield Collegiate School and Knock Grammar School in Belfast and, at first intending to follow in the family tradition, commenced a course in preparation for the Civil Service Entrance Examination. However, when war broke out in 1939, perhaps because of an interest in first aid awakened by his growing involvement with the scout movement, he decided to enrol in the Faculty of Medicine at the Queen's University of Belfast. Although this necessitated studying chemistry and physics for the first time, he matriculated in March 1940 and commenced the medical course in September of that year.

Professor Henry Barcroft was Head of the Department of Physiology at that time, and Bob came into association with him firstly in connection with the formation of a first aid post in the University, and secondly when he volunteered as a subject for experiments being carried out by Barcroft on the effects of hypoxia. He was also a volunteer for experiments conducted by Dr. W.G. Allen on the cardiovascular effects of amphetamine and ephedrine. However, while he was very interested in the experiments being carried out, and greatly influenced by Barcroft's personal interest in his subjects and his courtly manner, he had no thought of a career in physiology at this stage. While an undergraduate, he became a section leader in a mobile ambulance unit, and served during the heavy air raids on Belfast in 1941. He also found time to run a troop of scouts, and take them on camping expeditions into the Mourne mountains, and canoe trips on to Lough Neagh and Strangford Lough.

On graduation in December 1946, he was appointed Resident Medical Officer in the Belfast City Hospital, and was successively House Surgeon in General Surgery, the Children's Surgery Unit and Gynaecology, and House Physician in General Medicine. By the end of this year he had decided to make a career in surgery, but before commencing postgraduate work, signed on as a ship's surgeon with Alfred Holt and Company. He was appointed to the M.V. Glenogle (Glen Line) and sailed from Liverpool in January 1948 via the Far East to Australia, returning to Belfast in September of the same year.

The Queen's University of Belfast, 1948-1957

With the intention of studying for the Primary Fellowships examination of the Royal College of Surgeons, Whelan sought a post in physiology at Queen's University, and was offered a half-time assistant lectureship at a salary of £150 per annum by A.D.M. Greenfield who had just succeeded H. Barcroft as head of the department. Greenfield had come from St Mary's where his interest in the human circulation had been stimulated by George Pickering and Hugo Huggett, and he had commenced a study of the response of the human peripheral circulation to cold in collaboration with John Shepherd who had been appointed to a lectureship by Barcroft the previous year.

Whelan quickly became involved in assisting in these experiments. Before the year was out, he had become fascinated by research and, abandoning his intention to pursue a surgical career, accepted a full-time assistant lectureship in September 1949. He later was pleased to acknowledge that Greenfield's vigorous and critical experimental technique, his attention to detail, his honesty of purpose and generosity of spirit had made a considerable impression on him, and that Shepherd's energy, drive and clarity of judgment was an equally important influence. Their collaborative work over three years led to the publication of eight papers on the effects of cold on the human circulation, and three on the blood flow in the umbilical cord of the guinea pig. However, a presage of what was to become his special interest in the action of humoral agents and drugs on human blood vessels was his first publication, which was on the effects of infusions of mixtures of adrenaline and noradrenaline on the human subject, with de Largy, Greenfield and McCorry. Even though it meant that his name was usually last, Whelan nearly always followed the Belfast tradition of listing authors alphabetically .

In the department he shared a basement laboratory and office, next to the animal house, with John Shepherd. According to John, he displayed remarkable tolerance; his efficient organization and filing of papers contrasting with John's scattered at random. Even their temperature centres operated at different levels – Bob, warm even in winter, and John always cold. There was a large gas stove and a window that opened with much effort. If John arrived before Bob in the morning, he turned on the gas stove to the maximum and closed the window; as soon as John left the room, Bob reversed the process, clearly for his own preservation. Despite these differences in their orderly approaches and climatic appreciation, their friendship endured.

In August 1949, Whelan was the subject of an experiment in which the effect of intravenous infusions of mixtures of adrenaline and noradrenaline was studied. During an infusion he experienced unexpected symptoms including pain in his chest and abdomen, and rapidly developed an acute headache. The infusion was stopped, but the blinding headache persisted and he commenced to vomit. Severe cerebral congestion was diagnosed and he was admitted to hospital. His condition improved overnight and he was discharged the next day, but it was 10-12 days before the headache finally disappeared. Measurements which had continued up until the infusion stopped showed that in contrast to previous subjects his blood pressure had risen to the high level of 230/150 mm Hg, and since all drug doses had been double-checked the possibility that he was hypersensitive to noradrenaline was considered. Undaunted by his experience, Whelan insisted on putting this to the test and the experiment was repeated four weeks later. Small doses were tried first, and these were gradually increased until the original amounts were being administered, but the effects were within the normal range. Whelan therefore concluded in the description of the incident which appeared in his M.D. thesis that an accidental overdosage had been responsible for the reaction. As he also pointed out, the incident also furnished first hand experience of a hypertensive crisis as suffered by a patient with a phaeochromocytoma (a noradrenaline-producing tumour) and for this reason was considered worthy of record.

According to Greenfield, Bob was as pleasant and enthusiastic a colleague as it is possible to imagine. He was reliable, orderly, generous and resourceful. He had a clear mind and the ability to perceive and formulate simple and important questions and to devise experiments to answer them. His desk and his experiments were always neat and tidy. He was methodical and direct. He volunteered for the chores and undertook more than his share of them. He had a fine wit and humour and there was a good deal of laughter when serious work was not in hand. On one of the long journeys to a meeting of the Physiological Society in England, the train lights failed. Bob, of course, just happened to have a candle in his bag, lit it and continued to read. When examining in Cork, a candidate applied for the rarely exercised right to be examined in Gaelic. Bob promptly agreed, but said it would have to be Ulster Gaelic. The candidate recoiled, and settled for English. The work in the laboratory needed a fair amount of sterile dressings and supplies such as needles and syringes. Bob undertook to arrange them. They came from the City Hospital where Betty Hepburn, his future wife, was a theatre sister.

In 1951, he was awarded the degree of M.D. with high commendation for a thesis entitled 'Observations on the Interaction of Chemical, Nervous, Thermal and Postural Factors in the Control of the Peripheral Circulation'. Barcroft, who was one of the examiners of the thesis, offered Whelan a research fellowship in the Sherrington School of Physiology at St Thomas's Hospital, and this was taken up in October 1951, just two months after his marriage. In London, he investigated plasma histamine levels during adrenaline infusions in man with J.L. Mongar and the mechanism of post-exercise and reactive hyperaemia with A.C. Dornhorst, as well as pursuing further studies on the effects of adrenaline and noradrenaline with Maureen Young, H. Barcroft and P. Gaskell.

Returning to Queen's in October 1952 as lecturer in physiology (a joint appointment between the university and the Northern Ireland Hospitals Authority), he worked at first with Greenfield and Duff on the mechanism of the vasodilatation produced by gas embolism, and with Duff and Patterson on the effects of anti-histamines on reactive hyperaemia. In 1955 he was awarded a second doctorate, a PhD, for a thesis entitled 'Observations on the effects of certain amines on the circulation and respiration in man.' He and John Shepherd (who had spent the year 1953-54 at the Mayo Clinic) had been joined in September 1954 by a recent medical graduate, Ian Roddie. Their investigations into the peripheral circulation revealed the role of vasomotor nerves in active vasodilatation in the skin and the importance of reflexes arising from low pressure baroreceptors in the control of the muscle circulation. This work resulted in 11 publications, of which eight appeared in 1957. In the same year, Whelan also published two other papers (one with Patterson and Shepherd and the other with Glover and Marshall) and wrote a review on the physiology of muscle circulation. This highly productive partnership came to an end when Shepherd returned to the Mayo Clinic in October 1957 as Consultant in Physiology and Professor in the Graduate School of Medicine.

During the spring of 1957, Dr Charles Best of Toronto (the insulin co-discoverer) and his wife came to Belfast to visit the medical school and to trace the ancestors of his wife, who was a Mahon from Londonderry. Bob and Betty took the Bests to Londonderry and arranged a lunch for them with the Lord Mayor. When the Bests returned to London they chanced to meet A.P. Rowe, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Adelaide, at the Athenaeum Club. They had met previously in Adelaide and, hearing that Rowe was in the United Kingdom to seek a successor to Professor Sir Stanton Hicks who was retiring from the chair of human physiology and pharmacology, Best said 'I have the right person for you – Robert Whelan'. Rowe telephoned Whelan, who was to recount later, 'I was taken aback. I had a patient in the room at the time. At least I knew where Adelaide was because of my year on the merchant ship. So I went to see Rowe in the Athenaeum – the first time I had ever entered it – to drink what he called a mug of tea with him. He told me I was too young. Six weeks later I was offered the job.' Twenty-one years later he was to become a member of the club.

University of Adelaide, 1958-1971

At the time of his arrival in Adelaide in January l958, the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology was languishing; moreover, neurophysiology was preeminent in the Australian physiological scene and cardiovascular physiology was its poor Cinderella. Despite the bare facilities he found on his arrival, within the first two weeks he had organized ongoing experiments involving, of course, the measurement of blood flow in muscle and skin. Ivan de la Lande, who took up an appointment as senior lecturer in pharmacology a month later, found a vigorous and stimulating research programme well under way. While they appeared as co-authors on only five papers, Whelan acknowledged that de la Lande's interest in autonomic pharmacology and basic pharmacological approach were of great influence even in those projects in which he was not directly involved, and his continued interest and suggestions provided valuable guidance and stimulation.

At first Whelan maintained his interest in the physiological control of the human peripheral circulation and, for example, he continued his investigations into the mechanism of reactive and post-exercise hyperaemia. In 1960 he was awarded the D.Sc. by Queen's University for his collected papers on 'Studies in human physiology'. However his interest in the action of the catecholamines, noradrenaline and adrenaline, took him more into the realms of pharmacology. During his 13 years in Adelaide he investigated the action of naturally occurring hormones and autocoids – such as 5-hydroxytryptamine, angiotensin and oestrogens – and of many pharmacological agents (reserpine, bethanidine, nicotine, ephedrine, tyramine, bretylium tosylate) on the human circulation. In doing so he contributed to the establishment of the growing discipline of clinical pharmacology in Australia. In addition he investigated vascular disturbances in patients with conditions such as autonomic degeneration and hypertension.

Part of the revitalization process he brought about was his introduction of the B.Med.Sc.(Hons) degree into the medical course, which allowed medical students to interrupt their studies at the end of third year to carry out a year of research. These students augmented the young and enthusiastic group of graduates he had attracted to the department, and it soon became recognized as a major centre for cardiovascular research, both in Australia and internationally. In particular, he succeeded in attracting a succession of young medical graduates to work with him. These included C.J. Schwartz, S.L. Skinner, V.J. Parks, A.G. Sandison, R.L. Hodge, C.J. Cooper, J.D. Fewings, G.C. Scroop, K.W. Brandon, J.A. Walsh, M.J.D. Hanna, D.B. Frewin, and E.R. Lumbers. Many of these now hold eminent academic positions but, equally important, others returned to clinical medicine imbued with the philosophies generated during their apprenticeship. The benefit of this to clinical medicine in Adelaide and elsewhere in Australia cannot be overrated.

Whelan arrived in Australia at a time when research in the medical sciences was beginning to gain momentum, and he made important contributions on the national scene. In 1957, discussions had taken place between V. Macfarlane, P. Bishop, J. Eccles, R. Wright and F. Shaw concerning the need for an Australian Physiological Society. Whelan joined in enthusiastically in discussions with a larger group who were attending the 1958 meeting of ANZAAS in Adelaide. Eccles took the chair, a draft constitution was circulated and agreement to form a society was reached. In 1959, V. Macfarlane took on the secretarial duties involved in planning an inaugural meeting. This was held at the University of Sydney, 26-28 May 1960, and Whelan was elected as one of the inaugural councillors. Because of the close links between the two disciplines, the pharmacologists were strongly represented in the Society from the start, although the original name chosen was the Australian Physiological Society. Whelan, who in an after-dinner address to the Society in 1975 was to describe himself as 'a physiologist or a pharmacologist of sorts', was a strong supporter of the union, and of the move to include 'Pharmacology' in the name which was finally successful in 1967. His contributions to the growing discipline of clinical pharmacology was also recognized by his election as the first president of the Australasian Society of Clinical and Experimental Pharmacologists when it was formed in 1966. This year was marked by his election as a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, and 1967 by the publication of his book, Control of the Peripheral Circulation in Man.

Whelan's first contribution to administration was a two year stint as Associate Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, 1960-1961. In 1962, he spent a sabbatical year overseas. From January to September he was once again with Henry Barcroft at St Thomas's Hospital, this time as visiting professor, and their work with B. Greenwood on blood flow and venous oxygen saturation during sustained contraction of the forearm muscles was published in the Journal of Physiology in 1963. From September to October he was a Carnegie Travelling Fellow in the U.S.A., and he spent November-December as a visiting professor in the University of Southern California. Here he worked with Professor Chester Hyman who was later to visit him in Adelaide. The same year he was elected to Fellowship of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians. After his return in 1967 he became progressively more involved in administration, although there was no decline in the output of papers from his laboratory. On the local scene, he served as Dean of the Faculty in 1964 and 1965, and was a member of the Standing Sub-Committee of the Education Committee of the Professorial Board from 1963 to 1966 and chairman of the Education Committee in 1971.

His talents as an administrator were increasingly recognized on the national scene, and he was invited to join the advisory committee on the establishment of a medical school in the University of Tasmania (1964), and the Council of the newly established Flinders University of South Australia (1966-1971). He was a consultant for the establishment of a new medical school at the University of Nottingham in 1969 (where his former colleague, A.D.M. Greenfield, was foundation Dean). He also served on a number of important State and Federal Government bodies including the Australian Drug Evaluation Committee as an inaugural member (1963-1971) and the Medical Research Advisory Committee of the National Health and Medical Research Council (1966-1971). He was a member of the Board of Directors of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute for Medical Research from 1968 to 1971.

University of Western Australia, 1971-1977

It was, therefore, no surprise to his colleagues when Whelan was appointed Vice-Chancellor of the University of Western Australia in June 1971. His appointment was at the invitation of the University Senate and he succeeded Sir Stanley Prescott who had been the longest serving Vice-Chancellor since the University was founded in 1911. Never one to do anything by halves, he devoted all his energies to his new responsibilities and was forced to drop out of active research. Nevertheless, when he met socially with former colleagues it was not long before the conversation would get round to their research activities, and he could always be relied on for helpful comments.

The 18 years of his predecessor's term had seen the university pass through an unprecedented period of growth. Between 1953 and 1970 student numbers rose from 1,741 to over 7,500 and full-time teaching staff increased from 115 including 16 professors to 429 including 54 professors. New faculties of Economics and Commerce, Medicine and Architecture, with concomitant major buildings, had been established. With acute perspicacity Whelan was quick to realise that the heyday of unlimited government funding was drawing to a close. He began to plan a series of changes to the university's procedures designed to loosen the almost autocratic control over resources of all kinds held by the Vice-Chancellory.

Whelan foresaw the need for greater involvement of the academic body in the distribution and management of resources, particularly finance. Foremost amongst his initiatives was the setting up of a representative group from the academic community to examine the university's budget strategy and to advise him on budget allocation and on financial policy matters. Following on from this was the introduction of departmental block grants and formula funding for teaching and research. These measures not only gave Heads of Departments greater responsibility and flexibility in the application of departmental resources but also removed the irksome need to supplicate in detail for funds. In a press interview prior to his departure for Liverpool he identified his reformation of the pattern of government of the university as one of his main achievements.

The tradition was that of a close-knit administration, where the Vice-Chancellor had his finger in every pie. I tried to introduce more devolution so that the buck stopped a little bit before it got to me. I gave departments block grants so that the best brains in the University didn't have to spend their whole time deciding whether or not Bloggs would get a new spectrometer.

Perhaps because of its isolation, the University of Western Australia may have been considered one of the more conservative of Australian universities and, as a result, did not readily answer to changes or innovation in academic government. Whelan saw this conservative attitude as a challenge. By the use of his ability to communicate and engender trust and his diplomacy, he was able to have objections set aside and achieve a number of changes in the structure that brought a 20th-century democracy to the University. These measures included the abolition of the appointment to permanent headships of departments, the re-structuring of procedures for the appointment of professors, the introduction of a promotion consultative committee to consider cases for academic promotion at sub-professorial levels, the issue of a manual on administrative organisation and procedures as a means of avoiding frustrations and delays caused by submissions being incorrectly framed or enquiries directed to the wrong section of the administration, and the establishment of a strong Postgraduate Student Association.

Whilst promoting a degree of decentralization he firmly believed that the Vice-Chancellor should remain sufficiently involved in all aspects of the University's affairs to secure the wide conspectus necessary to enable him to take a leading part in all discussions involving questions of major policy. He also firmly believed that he should devote time to meeting academic staff in their departments. A further aim was to achieve more co-ordination with the other tertiary institutions in Perth, the Western Australian Institute of Technology and Murdoch University, founded in 1973. While he later was to hint that he would have liked to have gone further, he at least succeeded in linking library and computer services and creating joint admissions and animal breeding centres.

During his time as Vice-Chancellor in Perth, Whelan was a member of the Tertiary Education Commission of Western Australia. He also served on the Rhodes Scholarship Selection Committee for the whole of this period and was a member of the Australian-Asian Co-operative Scheme Standing Committee and the CSIRO Medical Research Liaison Committee from 1974 to 1976. He was on the Council of the Australian Academy of Science, 1973-1975, and acted as chairman of its Working Party on Noise. He took particular pleasure in the success of the University Art Collection Board which he instigated in October 1973. This was formed by the amalgamation of the McGilvray Bequest Committee, the Pictures Committee, the Tom Collins Memorial Fund Committee and the Senate ad hoc Committee on the university Art Gallery. The advantages resulting from having a single policy when considering the purchase of works of art and exhibitions were considerable. The supervision of the university collection was greatly improved; it was catalogued and realistic values placed on the pictures and artifacts for insurance purposes. Through the Board, the University was able to encourage artistic activity both on and off the campus. The University of Western Australia is now justly proud of its art collection and of its gallery in the Undercroft. It too was created at his instigation.

Whelan was 48 years of age at the time of his appointment as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Western Australia. The Whelans had been happy in Perth, but he was conscious of the fact that to remain until retirement at 65 years of age would mean 17 years in one university, a possibility that he did not wish to consider. His family were growing up and moving away from Australia. Although this stint as Vice-Chancellor had removed him from the research laboratory, his undoubted administrative ability and his native Irish knack of getting on with people was being put to good use for tertiary education.

University of Liverpool, 1977-1984

The invitiation to be considered for appointment as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Liverpool came at a time when he had achieved as much as he was able in Western Australia. He had given six years of dedicated service to the University of Western Australia and had brought about substantial academic and administrative development. He had exercised leadership within the University and because of his friendship and approachability had become well respected and admired. He had not achieved all his goals, but he had made a substantial contribution. His appointment as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Liverpool in succession to Dr Trevor C. Thomas was announced in June 1976, and he took up the appointment in Liverpool at the beginning of 1977.

It is recollected that his youngest son Jack was not anxious to leave Western Australia and could only be prevailed upon to do so on two grounds; first, that he be permitted to attend the same school, in Liverpool, as the Beatles and second, that he be permitted to return to Australia at the conclusion of his schooling. In typical Whelan fashion both promises were honoured.

At the time Whelan left Perth, the University of Western Australia was settled down to a period of consolidation and, like all Australian universities, was grappling with the problem of absorbing the standstill in expenditure imposed by the government without losing all flexibility for new development. He was therefore well prepared for the situation in Britain, which was to become even worse. In Australia there had been a standstill, in the U.K. the economic recession was to become deeper and a government onslaught on funding began in 1981. Demographic studies had shown that student numbers were to fall rapidly by the late 1980s, and the government decided that universities would have to contract and reorganise themselves in order to be able to meet the needs and opportunity of new development. Whelan quickly developed a reputation for applying the painful but necessary economies with skill and fairness. He achieved this by visiting each department, many of them twice, where he spent time with the staff listening to their problems and getting to understand their anxieties and hopes. The personal contacts he thus established gave him an effective basis for fairly assessing the competing demands. Although he was the first Vice-Chancellor of the University to have a scientific background, he was equally concerned to safeguard the arts-based subjects at this time of shrinking resources. There was one principal condition if a department were to gain his full respect and support, and that was to demonstrate a wholehearted zest for the advancement of knowledge. In this way, he managed to win the confidence and support of students and staff at all levels, and greatly improved their morale.

Most important of all, as Professor A.S. King was later to acknowledge in his tribute on behalf of the Senate of the University, he showed great foresight in recognizing from the outset the vital importance which research would come to play. When he first arrived, the record of the University in the competition for external grants for research was not good. Because of his untiring efforts to stimulate research, external funding was greatly increased. This was a timely resurgence because of the government's subsequent decision to redistribute funding in favour of those universities with the best achievements in research. Characteristically, he avoided making intemperate public statements and imposing hasty, precipitate solutions. He developed a corporate strategy that was fair and flexible, and avoided irrevocable damage to faculties and departments. By being seen to lay down the groundwork for eventual regrowth he ensured that the University would come through the difficult period with its morale high, and with all sectors in the University combining in their determination to achieve the best possible future for Liverpool.

Conscious of the important lead a major civic university could give to the city and region in which it had been established, he encouraged fruitful association between the University and local industry and himself set an example, serving and holding office in many local organisations. He served the local community, for example, as a vice-president of the Liverpool Council for Social Services and the Merseyside Marriage Guidance Council, and he had a particular interest in the Merseyside Enterprise Forum, a body which had been formed to provide independent advice to the Merseyside County Council on matters related to the economy of the area. In 1984, he was appointed to the Board of Granada Television.

His powers of academic leadership and his flair for patient and firm negotiation inevitably led, as it had in Australia, to his being asked to serve higher education at a national level, and his influence spread far beyond Liverpool.

His notable achievements arose mainly through the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, of which he automatically became a member on his appointment as Vice-Chancellor in 1977. He was appointed a member of the Committee's important General Purposes Committee in 1978, becoming vice-chairman of the Committee itself from 1981 to 1983, at a time when severe cuts in university financing were causing great constraints in teaching and research. He was also a member from 1977 to 1979 of one of the four standing committees – Standing Committee A – which advises the Committee on financial matters affecting universities, and for a further period he was a member of Standing Committee C, the group which advises the main committee on staff and student matters.

Whelan's major contributions to the work of the CVCP lay in the field of medical education. Appointed deputy chairman of the Medical Advisory Committee in 1978, he succeeded Lord Hunter as chairman in the autumn of 1981. This is a committee of Deans of Medicine in universities with medical schools. In his time as chairman it had to advise the main committee on an increasing number of complex technical matters, particularly involving the relationship between the universities and the National Health Service. From 1981 he played a crucial role in safeguarding the interest of universities during negotiations with the Department of Health and Social Security and the medical profession over proposals concerning medical manpower planning. He also succeeded Lord Hunter as vice-chairman of the committee's Medical Sub-Committee, which consists of the heads of all universities in the United Kingdom with medical schools, and as chairman of the Clinical Academic Staff Salaries Committee. This committee has to consider how best to reflect in the salary arrangements for clinical academic staff the decisions made by government for clinical staff in the National Health Service. The task is difficult and complex, and it was handled under his chairmanship with great skill, wisdom and sensitivity. Whelan was also the Committee's nominee on the Advisory Committee on Distinction Awards, which performs the delicate task of advising the Secretary of State for Social Services and the Secretaries of State for Scotland and Wales on which NHS consultants and community physicians should receive awards for distinction.

In May 1977 he was appointed alternative to Dr R.E. (later Lord) Hunter as representative of the CVCP on the Council for Postgraduate Medical Education which has the responsibility of co-ordinating and stimulating the organisation and development of postgraduate medical and dental education in England and Wales. He was appointed a full member in place of Lord Hunter in October 1978, and in September 1980 succeeded Lord Richardson as chairman.

Although he was regarded by other members of the CVCP as the acknowledged expert in all aspects relating to medical education, his influence did not confine itself to that area, and his counsel on general matters relating to higher education was always sought and valued by his colleagues. This was particularly so when he held wide responsibilities as vice-chairman of the whole committee.

He served as a member of the Review Body on Higher Education in Northern Ireland – a place for which he never lost his affection – from 1978 to 1981. This group was set up by Lord Melchett, the then Minister with responsibility for education in Northern Ireland. It sat under the chairmanship of Sir Henry Chilver, and its terms of reference were 'to consider the present provision of higher education in Northern Ireland, to review both the general and the particular needs of the Northern Ireland community in the 1980's and 1990's for higher education (including advanced further education); and to make recommendations'. The period during which the review was conducted was one of considerable change in Northern Ireland and in the United Kingdom generally. Cuts in public expenditure had put increasing pressures on higher education, and there had been special problems stemming from civil unrest in the province. In its report, the group recommended that within Northern Ireland the range of higher education institutions should ensure a geographical spread, should deploy resources flexibly and should offer a diversity of forms of provision, and strong co-ordinating machinery should be established to achieve these aims. Whilst it accepted the role being played by the Queen's University of Belfast (established as one of the Queen's Colleges in Ireland in 1845) and the Ulster Polytechnic in the higher education sector it considered that the New University of Ulster, founded in 1965, had not in general proved attractive to young and well qualified students. The report therefore concluded that the New University of Ulster should develop a new role with a particular concern with mature students and distance learning. Coinciding with the publication of the Review Group's report the government issued a policy statement on the future structure of higher education in Northern Ireland. While it shared the Group's desire to retain a major higher education base outside Belfast it rejected its proposal for a new role for the New University of Ulster. Instead, it accepted one of the other options that the Review Group had considered, namely that the New University of Ulster and the Ulster Polytechnic should merge, thus forming a basis for a new split-site University which could provide the geographical and academic spread of provision which was required. The radical step of creating a new university was accomplished in October 1984 when the University of Ulster came into being. During the period 1978-1980 the Review Group also carried out a view of teacher training. It concluded that teacher education in Northern Ireland should be reviewed as an integrated part of the total higher education system. Its future structure must be flexible and capable of adjusting readily to newly defined needs in terms both of numbers and styles. One of its recommendations on the need for rationalization led to the amalgamation of St Mary's and St Joseph's Colleges of Education to form a co-educational single voluntary college.

On the European scene Whelan was a leading figure in the development of the machinery to facilitate the movement of members of the medical profession in the Community in his capacity as the U.K. universities' member, from 1978, of the EEC Advisory Committee on Medical Training. This body was established following the acceptance of medical directives within the Community regarding the mutual recognition of qualifications. In international matters generally Professor Whelan's advice and wisdom was widely appreciated. He was a member of the British Council's Standing Committee for International Co-operation in Higher Education (CICHE) which was founded following the incorporation of the Inter-University Council for Higher Education Overseas (later IUPC) with the British Council. In 1981 he was elected to the Council of the Association of Commonwealth Universities as one of the four members representing U.K. universities. As a member of council he travelled to the West Indies in 1982 for the annual meeting and to Birmingham in 1983 when the Annual Council Meeting was held in conjunction with the Association's 13th Quinquennial Congress. In November 1983 he was elected vice-chairman of the Association and as such attended the Council meeting in Sri Lanka in 1984, and chaired meetings of the Executive Committee in the U.K. when the overseas chairman was absent. He was re-elected for a further year in November 1984, shortly before his death.

The Whelans remembered their emigration to Australia in 1957 as a tremendously exciting and stimulating experience. They had been very happy there, both in Adelaide and Perth, and they left with considerable sadness. Nevertheless, they found the return to Great Britain equally exciting and re-invigorating. The Vice-Chancellor's Lodge in Liverpool was a gracious house and contained many beautiful antiques. Domestic and gardening help was provided. Throughout their married life they had enjoyed entertaining and found the formal dinner party their favorite form of relaxation. In Liverpool they were able to enjoy this pastime in style, and entertained not only royalty and politicians, notable academics and citizens, but staff from all levels of the university and many students.

Soon after arriving in Liverpool in 1977 they bought a black and white cottage-style house in Tarporley in Cheshire, parts of which dated back to the 17th century. From then on Bob's exercise – whenever he could get there at the weekend – was walking briskly behind the motor mower. The perfectionist in him delighted in his shapely lawn and became anxious if he was unable to keep it looking beautiful. They enjoyed exploring the towns of Chester and Nantwich, visiting museums and antique shops and furnishing the cottage with old oak furniture. They read about the battles of the Civil War fought on the Cheshire plain, and one of their proudest possessions was a cannon ball found in their garden.

In February 1978, they also bought a small pied-a-terre in Conway Street, London, Wl. As he became increasingly involved on the national scene, the Whelans found themselves spending more and more time in the little flat, doing their entertaining at the Athanaeum of which he was now a member, and less and less time at their cottage. In 1981 they decided to sell both and buy a larger apartment in Devonshire Place, London, in which they could entertain and which would be their home after retirement. In place of the garden, Bob grew roses in tubs on the roof, but they had compensation of access to opera, the theatre and concerts which they loved. Bob discovered in himself a great love for classical music and he listened to tapes on a Sony walkman in bed, in the train, and when walking (as often as possible). He had a huge collection of tapes. Apart from that, his main interest was in people. He believed that his voyages to the Far East and Australia had been of great importance in widening his horizon, and he liked to talk to everyone – students, gardeners, professors, cleaners. This was of course also part of his job but he made no distinction between his job and his pleasure.

In June 1981, he was elected to the Freedom of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London, and as such was admitted to the Freedom of the City in 1982. Thereafter when asked what he planned to do in his retirement he would say that he would exercise his right and drive a flock of sheep over London Bridge. Once, when asked by a colleague what he did when not working, Bob had replied, 'I sleep'. In spite of his calm and unruffled appearance he indeed worked almost continuously at high pressure, and had been hypertensive for some years. Betty was always anxious about this and, recognising that there was only three more years to his retirement, suggested that a break of three months would give him the refreshment and rest which would enable him to enjoy the rest of his time. The University granted him long service leave, creating a precedent since followed by other universities in the United Kingdom, and the Whelans travelled to Australia at the beginning of 1984. The principal reason was to see their son, Robert (a lecturer in biological sciences at the University of Wollongong) and his wife, Anna. Bob, however, also took the opportunity to visit his old department in Adelaide and to meet his former colleagues both there and in Perth. In Adelaide he also delivered the Florey Memorial Lecture for 1984 and on the way back to England attended the council meeting of the Association of Commonwealth Universities which was held in Sri Lanka.

He died suddenly in Liverpool on 21 November 1984. He had been talking to a meeting of students about government proposals to cut student grants when he collapsed and fell in the foyer of Senate House. The meeting was in no way acrimonious. The students asked him why he would not appear on television to support them. His reply, 'Because I am not sufficiently photogenic', were his last words and perhaps his first untruth.

Scientific achievements

Whelan's scientific career spanned the 23 years from 1948 to 1971 and resulted in 96 scientific publications. All but six were concerned with the control of the human peripheral circulation and involved studies on normal subjects, usually the investigators themselves and student volunteers, or patients. These studies in man are of particular significance for, unlike experiments on animals, they were performed under physiological conditions on conscious subjects, uninfluenced by the effects of general anaesthesia. A further advantage was that the subject was able to participate, for example by performing voluntary exercise, and this enabled many experiments to be carried out which would not have been possible with animals.

The experiments often required the insertion of needles or catheters into arteries or veins either for the infusion of drugs or the measurement of pressure, or the use of other invasive procedures such as the injection of local anaesthetic in order to produce regional nerve blocks. Accordingly, team work was essential and most of Whelan's publications were collaborative, but there can be no doubt as to the importance of his contribution in every one. In most experiments, venous occlusion plethysmography was used to measure blood flow to the forearm or hand. While this remains the most reliable quantitive method in man, it measures the total flow to the segment enclosed in the plethysmography. Although the forearm is composed mainly of muscle, previous investigators had recognised not only that it included a significant skin component, but that the vascular beds in muscle and skin often react differently to the same stimulus, and were subject to separate control mechanisms. Other workers had therefore used techniques such as the suppression of the skin circulation by iontophoresis of a vasoconstrictor in order to distinguish between the two components, but many of the important advances made by Whelan and his colleagues, Roddie and Shepherd, were the result of their perfection of the 'oxygen saturation technique'. This involved frequent and simultaneous sampling of blood from superficial veins draining skin and deep veins draining muscle; provided there was no change in oxygen consumption by the tissues, changes in blood flow were reflected by similar directional changes in the oxygen saturation of the effluent venous blood. They were thus able to follow, at least qualitatively, changes in the muscle and skin components while at the same time measuring total flow by plethysmography. The skilful use of this technique played an important part in what were this group's most outstanding contributions, that is, the definition of the role of vasoconstrictor and vasodilator components in the nervous control of skin blood vessels, and of the demonstration of the role of low pressure baroreceptors in the reflex control of muscle vessels. However, Whelan made many other contributions which advanced understanding in every other area of peripheral circulatory control, ranging from the role of hormones and neurotransmitters to that of local factors such as metabolic activity of the tissues and temperature. In addition, he developed a special interest in studying the effects on the human circulation not only of naturally occurring autocoids such as 5-hydroxytryptamine and angiotensin, but of a wide range of vasoactive pharmacological agents. In many of these studies involving drugs, the results gave insight into physiological mechanisms, as well as providing therapeutically useful information.

Nervous control of skin blood vessels

Roddie, Shepherd and Whelan confirmed and extended the finding of previous workers that the increase in forearm blood flow during general body heating was confined to skin vessels. In particular, they showed that after an initial rise in skin blood flow which could be accounted for by the release of sympathetic vasoconstrictor tone, flow increased to a level greater than that after acute nerve block and hence was due to an active vasodilatation. Further, a cholinergic mechanism was involved since atropine reduced the vasodilatation. Whelan et al. therefore concluded that in contrast to the hand, where dilatations in response to body heating can be explained by the release of vasoconstrictor tone, both vasoconstrictor and cholinergic vasodilator nerves contribute to the response in the forearm. However, since the active vasodilatation was accompanied by sweating which is known to cause the appearance of the vasodilator polypeptide, bradykinin, in the subcutaneous space, Whelan acknowledged that it could be explained by activation of sympathetic fibres innervating sweat glands. Whether or not there are also cholinergic vasodilator fibres directly innervating the blood vessels in forearm skin still remains to be elucidated.

Nervous control of muscle blood vessels

The same technique was used to show that the fall in forearm blood flow which occurred when a subject was tilted from the horizontal to the vertical head-up position was due to an increase in vasoconstrictor tone in muscle vessels. Tilting the subject into the head-down position had the opposite effect, and even the passive raising of the legs was sufficient to decrease vasoconstrictor tone. In a series of elegant experiments, Whelan and his colleagues showed that this change was dependent on the shift of blood into the trunk. Since there was no change in arterial pressure but both mean and pulsatile venous pressure increased, they concluded that the stimulation of baroreceptors in the low pressure area of the intrathoracic vascular bed was responsible for the reflex changes in response to postural adjustments in man. This is an important finding since there is evidence that in man, in contrast to animals, muscle blood vessels do not participate in arterial baroreceptor reflexes. Whelan postulated that the reflex dilatation in response to an increase in venous return lowers peripheral resistance and hence permits an increase in cardiac output without much change in arterial pressure. This avoids arterial baroreceptor stimulation which would tend to slow the heart.


This hormone, which is released from the adrenal medulla at times of stress, increases the rate and output of the heart and causes vasoconstriction in the skin of all species which have been studied. Given intravenously in man, adrenaline causes a sustained increase in forearm blood flow, but when given by intra-arterial infusion it causes only a transient increase followed by a return to or below the resting level. This difference led Whelan initially to conclude that the dilatation produced by intravenous adrenaline was an indirect effect and, since it was still present after nerve block or sympathectomy he postulated initally that it was due to the release of another vasodilator hormone. However, the use of drugs which blocked the vasoconstrictor effects of adrenaline (mediated by alpha-adrenoceptors) along with oxygen saturation measurements revealed that while adrenaline constricted skin vessels, its effect on muscle vessels was a balance between direct vasoconstrictor and vasodilator components. Accordingly, the effect of adrenaline on total forearm flow depended on the level of skin blood flow at the time of the infusion. When the skin flow was high, as in hot subjects, the skin vasoconstriction masked any vasodilatation in the underlying muscle; conversely, the vasodilator action was best reflected in change in total flow when the skin flow was low, as in cold subjects. In other experiments, Whelan showed that the vasodilator action was not due to the release of histamine, nor could it be explained by the release of lactic acid. While it now appears that the discrepancy between the intra-arterial and intravenous effects of adrenaline is due to the effect that the route of administration has on the concentration of drug which arrives in the forearm and to the lower threshold of the beta-adrenoceptors responsible for vasodilatation, Whelan's detailed analysis of the action of adrenaline remains an invaluable contribution to our understanding of the peripheral circulatory effects of this important hormone.


Whelan also resolved much of the conflict concerning the action of noradrenaline – the neurotransmitter released at most sympathetic nerve endings – on muscle blood vessels. As with adrenaline, its effect on forearm blood flow depended on its route of administration. While intra-arterial infusions caused a fall in forearm flow, intravenous infusions were variously reported to cause an increase, a decrease or little change. Barcroft and Whelan investigated this in some detail and found that intravenous noradrenaline caused an initial transient increase of variable size in most subjects, followed by a return to the testing level or a slight sustained increase. After acute nerve-block or sympathectomy, however, intravenous noradrenaline caused only a sustained decline. They concluded that noradrenaline has two opposing effects – a direct constrictor action and an indirect dilator action mediated by release of vasoconstrictor tone. Whelan later accounted for the variability of the response by showing that, as with adrenaline, the pattern of response of total flow was influenced by the initial level of skin blood flow.

Local factors

Many investigators have sought an explanation for the mechanism of the increase in flow which follows a period of circulatory arrest (reactive hyperaemia) or of muscular exercise (post-exercise hyperaemia). Neither vasomotor nerves nor vasodilator hormones can account for these responses and the hyperaemias have been attributed to changes which occur locally in the tissues themselves – in particular, the accumulation of vasodilator metabolites. Hypoxia has been suggested as a contributor, but Dornhorst and Whelan showed that this was unlikely, since the hyperaemia in the calf following either circulatory arrest or exercise was not affected by breathing a low oxygen mixture. Whelan also provided evidence that neither carbon dioxide, lactic acid, histamine nor the changes which occur in transmural pressure made any important contribution to post-exercise hyperaemia.

In contrast, Whelan showed that a myogenic response to the drop in intravascular pressure appears to make some contribution to reactive hyperaemia, since packing the forearm with blood by exposure to sub-atmospheric pressure before the period of circulatory arrest reduced the size of the subsequent hyperaemia. Whelan also concluded that histamine release made some contribution to reactive hyperaemia since the response to long periods of circulatory arrest was reduced by the intra-arterial infusion of antihistamines. Many investigators had drawn attention to the relationship between the duration and severity of the exercise or the duration of circulatory arrest to the size of the subsequent hyperaemia. However, Dornhorst and Whelan concluded from the results of experiments in which blood flow through the muscles was reduced by application of external pressure that in neither case was there a quantitative debt-repayment relationship, and that vascular dilatation can pass off before the normal repayment is made. Whelan concluded that while an increased rate of muscle blood flow was not essential for the recovery of the tissue after a period of circulatory arrest or exercise, the rate of recovery is dependent on the blood flow and that the purpose of the high flow in normal circumstances is to return the tissues to the resting state as quickly as possible.

While investigating the local effects of carbon dioxide, Duff, Greenfield and Whelan observed that the intra-arterial injection of a small volume of any gas produced a long lasting vasodilatation in the forearm. The effect was not seen when equivalent amounts of gas dissolved in saline were injected, and they concluded that the vasodilatation was related to the physical presence of gas emboli in the microvessels rather than to any chemical properties of the gas. In patients with occlusive arterial disease the dilatation produced by gas embolism was much more prolonged than that after intra-arterial infusion of vasodilator drugs, but unfortunately the clinical response was no better. Whelan excluded the possibility that the vasodilatation was due to release of histamine, but the mechanism of this most interesting phenomenon remains unknown.

Autocoids and vasoactive drugs

Whelan's systematic studies of the peripheral vascular actions of a number of autocoids and vasoactive drugs not only extended observations that had been made in animals to man, but in many instances threw new light on the mechanisms involved. In particular, his detailed analysis of the action of angiotensin in normal, sympathectomized and nerve blocked limbs led to the important conclusion that although angiotensin has a direct vasoconstrictor action, its powerful pressor effect is partly due to central stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system. Also, his observation that reserpine administered intra-arterially produces a long lasting vasodilatation in both normal and sympathectomized limbs provided evidence that this drug's hypotensive action in man may not be entirely due to the depletion of either central or peripheral stores of noradrenaline. Among the vasoactive drugs he studied were alcohol and nicotine. Alcohol was known to cause skin vasodilatation and hence a sense of warmth due to central depression of vasomotor tone. Whelan showed by giving it intra-arterially that its direct action was to cause vasoconstriction. With oral alcohol, although the skin flow increased, the direct constrictor effect prevailed in the underlying muscle, and he concluded that caution should be exercised in advocating the use of alcohol to improve the peripheral circulation in patients with arterial disease. He also showed that the local vascular actions of nicotine were more complicated than had formerly been believed, and was a balance between a direct vasodilator action on the blood vessel and a weaker indirect sympathomimetic effect.

Bob Whelan spent more than half his academic life in Australia. His many scientific contributions are passing the test of time, and he is remembered by several generations of undergraduates as a gifted teacher, He attracted many graduate students with his infectious enthusiasm for research, and even those who returned to clinical medicine benefited greatly from their time with him. He had an exceptionally keen and enquiring mind, but self-discipline was probably his key to success in every area. Consequently he was always well prepared and never ruffled; he appeared to have time for everything and everbody. As an administrator, he was renowned for accessibility fairness, good judgment and decisiveness. Above all, he will be remembered as a warm and friendly person who was unchanged by high office.

No record of the services Bob rendered to four universities could be complete without mention of the contributions of his wife, Betty, and the splendid support she provided in public as well as in private throughout their married life. All who worked with Bob had a sense of belonging to a family, and Betty's concern for and interest in his students and colleagues contributed greatly to this. Shortly before he died, he was told officially that he was to receive a knighthood in the New Year's Honours List. This would have been a fitting public recognition for his lifetime of service, and although not a seeker of honours Bob must have been pleased by the fact that this was one which would be shared by Betty. He would have been even more pleased had he known that her personal contributions would be recognised in 1986 by the award of the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, by the University of Liverpool.

About this memoir

This memoir was originally published in Historical Records of Australian Science, vol.6, no.3, 1986. It was written by W.E. Glover, Professor of Physiology and Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of New South Wales.


In writing this biographical memoir I should like to acknowledge the assistance of Mrs. Betty Whelan, and many of Professor Whelan's former colleagues including Professors A.D.M. Greenfield, I.S. de la Lande, J.T. Shepherd, W.J. Simmonds, R. Cramond, Dr. G.C. Scroop and Mr. D. Hewson.

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