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Robert Whelan (1922 - 1984):
Physiologist and University Vice-Chancellor

Robert Ford (“Bob”) Whelan was born in Belfast on 22 December 1922 to Robert Henry Whelan and his wife Dorothy Ivy (née Whittington). Educated at Bloomfield Collegiate School and Knock Grammar School, Belfast, he entered Queen’s University Belfast in 1940 graduating MB, BCh, BAO in December 1946 after which he served as Resident Medical Officer at the Belfast City Hospital.   He then joined the Glen Line (Alfred Holt & Co) being appointed to the MV Glenogle and sailed from Liverpool in January 1948 via the Far East to Australia, returning to Belfast in September the same year. His experiences decided him on a career in surgery to which he had been inclined since his undergraduate days, but for reasons now obscure but seemingly related to the paucity of opportunities in surgery and the growing reputation of the Department of Physiology at QUB, he decided instead on physiology and obtained a junior position and then a part-time Assistant Lectureship (at an annual salary of £150) at the Department, being made full-time in September 1949, and in 1951 he obtained his  Doctor of Medicine (MD) at QUB “with high commendation” for a thesis entiled “Observations on the interaction of  Chemical, Nervous, Thermal and Postural Factors in the Control of the Peripheral Circulation”. 

After a year’s secondment (1951-2) to the Sherrington School of Physiology at St Thomas’s Hospital Medical School, then led by the distinguished physiologist Henry Barcroft, he was appointed Lecturer in the QUB Department of Physiology joining the talented team of young enthusiasts working on vascular physiology under the leadership of the outstanding David Archibald Mant Greenfield (Dunville Professor of Physiology) along with such future prominent researchers as John Shepherd (later to be chairman of the Board of Development of the Mayo Foundation at the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota, USA); Ian Roddie (later to be Dunville Professor of Physiology at QUB); Gary Love (later to be Professor of Medicine and Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, QUB); WE (“Darty”) Glover; and many others who were to become celebrated. The successes of this team and of Whelan’s role within it were considerable as measured by their output of seminal papers and honorary degrees, none more than Whelan who completed his Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) thesis (“Observations of the effects of certain amines on the circulation and respiration in man”) in 1955, along with many published papers.

In 1958 Whelan was appointed Professor of Physiology and Pharmacology at the University of Adelaide, South Australia, and energised his department into becoming the most important in these subjects in the country, and in 1961 he presented his corpus of research for the degree of Doctor of Science (DSc,QUB) and he was later to publish his mature observations on important factors and mechanisms and of physiological understanding of control of the peripheral circulation in his 1967 book Control of the Peripheral Circulation in Man (Springfield, Illinois). The Associate Deanship of the University Medical Faculty followed in 1960 as did the Deanship in 1964.  (The activities, reforms and crucial re-organisations in the medical school and university and even in the medical services in the community at large and which owe much to Whelan’s drive and energy, not to mention his foresight and common sense, have been very fully described by Whelan’s colleague WE Glover in his detailed obituary notice referenced below). But greater prizes soon fell to him and in 1971 he was appointed Vice-Chancellor of the University of Western Australia with many prophesying, correctly, that even greater prizes awaited him in the United Kingdom or in North America. In 1976 he accepted the Vice-Chancellorship of the University of Liverpool, though only after strong persuasion since he had come to like and respect the Australian higher education systems.  Notwithstanding, he took up his new appointment on 1 January 1977.

Whelan soon made his mark both locally and nationally. His particular talents were in organisation and obtaining efficiency in everything from a laboratory experiment to running a university, and imaginative foresight as to how the practice of medicine and its development should best be organised and structured. He was a born leader - when younger had been a senior Boy Scout - and throughout his career he was able to command authority without, seemingly, being authoritarian. His Madison Avenue-style office suite had a conference desk which, like that in his private office, was always devoid of piles of papers, a model for any chief executive! As a problem solver he had such a talent that under him everything seemed possible. His success was bolstered by considerable personal charm, ambition and boundless enthusiasm and commitment and with a strong core of steel though with his innate sense of fair play ensuring that it fell short of ruthlessness. He was certainly the best-ordered and most skilful chairman the present writer ever sat under. All this helps to explain his meteoric rise nationally in bodies concerned with medical and university administration: the Postgraduate Medical Education Council for England and Wales (1980); the Medical Advisory Committee of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals of the United Kingdom (CVCP, 1980); the Vice-Chairman of the CVCP itself (he was earmarked for its next Presidency) and of the Clinical Academic Staff Salary Committee (1981); key member of many working parties and Trustee bodies including the Chilver Committee set up to enquire into and make recommendation “for the future of higher education in Northern Ireland”(1982). These are not an exhaustive list of his commitments and involvements, merely some of the most important ones, and all within a few years of his return from Australia. Potentially the most important of these commitments for Northern Ireland Institutions was the Chilver Committee because by 1975 the quinquennial planning and financing system of the UK universities was starting to wilt under the strain of hyperinflation and associated factors impeding effective planning, many being peculiar to Northern Ireland’s higher and further education systems which were becoming increasingly inadequate for purpose. Hence in December 1978 a powerful committee chaired by Sir Henry (after 1987 Baron) Chilver FRS, engineer and veteran of many bodies of enquiry and deliberation over a wide spectrum of activities, was established with the brief as mentioned above. Unfortunately it was to such little effect that when it finally reported in 1982 (after an Interim Report in 1980) it was accompanied by a government “Statement” virtually overthrowing the possibility of Chilver’s future scenario. Whelan had been a foundation member but his perceptive view based on his wide relevant experience, especially in Northern Ireland, was a minority one and failed to sway his colleague members.

 But Whelan was no remorseless administrator; he was personally courteous, impeccably mannered, gregarious and humorous in company and at ease with everyone as everyone was with him. Temperate in personal habits and tastes, generous host and gracious guest, a lover of classical music and good theatre, he was a generally popular individual; indeed, such was the growing demand for his services and the continuing confidence of his colleagues in his abilities and rectitude that, being far-sighted, he considered it prudent to obtain a base in London. In February 1978 he had bought a small pied-à -terre in Conway Street in London W1, but sold it and purchased a spacious two-floor apartment in Devonshire Place, a fashionable address in the west of the city, and which he and his wife (and some others of the family) frequented when the need arose. Then tragedy struck. On 21 November 1984, which was a National Union of Students “day of action”, while attending a committee meeting in the medical school, Whelan was asked to try to enlighten some students engaged in a temporary but disruptive “sit-in”, concerning government proposals to cut their grants. Characteristically he at once complied, addressed the students in the Senate House and when asked why he would not appear on television to support their displeasure retorted: “because I am not sufficiently photogenic”. (In fact he was extremely photogenic which all the students could well see). Almost at once he collapsed and was dead on arrival at hospital.  The Memorial Service in Liverpool (Anglican) Cathedral was attended by nearly all of his fellow UK Vice-Chancellors (the few who were absent sent representatives), both Bishops of Liverpool, the Lord-Lieutenant, most of the local civic officers and dignitaries, many staff members and students, and Lord Ashby (who had been Vice-Chancellor of Queen’s University Belfast during much of Whelan’s time on the staff) who gave a memorable Address.

Whelan had many professional degrees and accolades among which were MD, PhD, DSc (all QUB), FRCP, FRACP. FACE, FAA. He was proud of them all, mostly so of his Fellowship of the Royal College of Physicians (FRCP) especially since he was elected directly to it rather than on “promotion” from being a Member of the College, a rare honour.  Had he lived for six more weeks he would have been listed as a Knight Bachelor in the New Year’s Honours list in January 1985 since his name had already officially been accepted by all parties concerned.


Whelan married Helen Elizabeth MacDonald Hepburn (“Betty”), a nurse in Belfast City Hospital, on 31 July 1951, and they had three children:  Robert John (*1952), Elizabeth Janet (*1954) and Jack Henry (*1960).  None of them followed their parents into the profession. Betty’s contributions to Bob’s successes, and other works, was recognised in the award of Doctor of Laws (honoris causa) by the University of Liverpool in 1986.

Born: 22 December 1922
Died: 21 November 1984
Peter Froggatt

The sources for some of the information are the writer’s personal experience and knowledge of Whelan as a colleague University Vice-Chancellor and friend between 1977 and his tragic death in 1984. Other factual information is in standard sources, obituary notices, etc.  A short resume may be found in the present writer’s 1987 article co-authored with the late Dr JA  Weaver, “The Wild Geese”, Ulster Medical Journal, 56 (Supplement), pp 49-50, August 1987. The most comprehensive single biographical article is by WE Glover, Whelan’s colleague and long-time friend, “Robert Ford Whelan 1922-1984”, Historical Records of Australian Science, vol. 6 (no.3), pp 409-421, 1986. The present writer has not attempted to compile an exhaustive list of Whelan’s honours and distinctions, since Glover’s biographical essay yields a more or less comprehensive one.