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Wilhelm, Donald Lancelot (1919–1977)

by H. Konrad Muller

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Donald Lancelot Wilhelm (1919-1977), professor of pathology, was born on 20 August 1919 at Woodside, South Australia, eldest of six children of Berthold Benjamin Wilhelm, dairy-farmer, and his wife Clara Melvina, née Pfeiffer. His parents were from German-speaking, Lutheran families who had arrived in Australia in the late 1830s. They were hard-working dairy-farmers in the Adelaide Hills for whom money was in short supply. Don attended Mount Torrens Public and Birdwood High schools. He showed strong determination and an adventurous spirit. His boyhood interests included stamp and birds' egg collecting, card games, chess, rabbit-shooting and cricket. He was opening batsman at Birdwood High and later played district cricket. Five ft 9 ins (175 cm) tall, he was fair haired with green eyes.

From an early age, encouraged by his mother, Wilhelm wanted to be a doctor. At the University of Adelaide (M.B., B.S., 1942; M.D., 1951) he was a top student, enjoying a good relationship with (Sir) John Cleland, professor of pathology, whom he admired. He won the mile race at a university sports day, followed horse-racing and, a small-time gambler, ran a book on the Melbourne Cup. As a student he played snooker for money; he was also a very good bridge player, but preferred poker. In 1943 he was a resident at Royal Adelaide Hospital. On 6 April 1944 at St Augustine's Church of England, Unley, he married Eileen Vimy Klopper, a senior nurse at R.A.H.

After serving part time in the Citizen Military Forces from April 1943, Wilhelm was called up for full-time duty as captain, Australian Army Medical Corps, Australian Imperial Force, on 1 February 1944 and posted to the 2nd/13th Field Ambulance. He served in Darwin and North Queensland then took part in the invasion of Brunei, Borneo, in June 1945. Helping to restore hospital facilities in the town of Brunei, he treated soldiers and local inhabitants, many of whom had been mistreated by the Japanese. He attended to patients with tropical ulcers, yaws, venereal disease, malaria and tuberculosis, and amputated the hands and limbs of children injured by Japanese booby traps. A senior officer of the British Borneo Civil Affairs Unit praised him 'for his devotion to duty and his untiring efforts'. Wilhelm was a caring and skilled doctor who demonstrated fine surgical skills.

In January 1946 he was transferred to the 121st Australian General Hospital, Katherine, Northern Territory, but, diagnosed with tuberculosis, became a patient there next month. Moved in August to the 105th Australian Military Hospital, Daws Road, Adelaide, he was discharged in September. His A.I.F. appointment terminated on 11 October. He accepted his condition philosophically and found his way back to health, with the help of his wife. His choice of a career in pathology was the result of the need to curtail his activities during his convalescence. He joined the University of Adelaide department of pathology in 1947 as a demonstrator and, appointed lecturer in 1949, directed (1950-51) the pathology department of the Repatriation General Hospital, Springbank. During this time he completed a thesis on lung cancer for his doctorate.

Although not guaranteed financial support, Wilhelm went to London in 1951 to gain experience in experimental pathology. He was appointed research assistant in the department of morbid anatomy, University College Hospital medical school, headed by (Sir) Roy Cameron who stimulated his interest in fundamental issues in pathology. Next year he joined the scientific staff of the Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine, working with (Sir) Ashley Miles in the department of experimental pathology. This period of research was his most productive.

Wilhelm accepted the foundation chair of pathology at the University of New South Wales in 1960. He built up a vigorous department and attracted good staff to enhance the university and hospital diagnostic, research and teaching programmes. He held practical classes in experimental pathology in which students were able to undertake basic experiments in such areas as inflammation, healing and necrosis. They appreciated Wilhelm as a teacher; one found him 'approachable, tolerant, interesting, humorous and nice'. He also developed an active research group and supervised their doctoral projects. The themes were Wilhelm's central interests—inflammation, healing and regeneration, vascular problems and later mast cells. He meticulously supervised his students, held frequent discussions of ongoing work, critically reviewed experiments and edited papers with his red biro.

Outside the department, Wilhelm was director of pathology at the laboratories of Prince Henry, Prince of Wales and Eastern Suburbs hospitals as well as consultant pathologist at the Royal Hospital for Women, and at St George, Sutherland and Bankstown hospitals. He was on the board of St George Hospital and adviser in pathology to the regional director of health of the Southern Metropolitan Health Region. Having steered the development of the Australian Society for Experimental Pathology, he was its first president (1969-71). He was a fellow of the (Royal) College of Pathologists of Australia and associate editor of Pathology for eight years.

A member of many committees, including advisory committees of the National Health and Medical Research Council, the New South Wales State Cancer Council, and the National Heart Foundation of Australia, Wilhelm was a director (1964-72) of the Asthma Foundation of New South Wales. The last held a particular appeal for him because of his interest in inflammation; in 1973 he was elected a life governor of the foundation. He strongly supported Vimy in her work for the Family Planning Association and the International Planned Parenthood Federation, and also served on the State committee of the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund.

Wilhelm's research interests were recorded in some fifty-six papers and seven chapters of books. He made three lasting contributions to understanding of the inflammatory response. First, he analysed the dynamics of vascular permeability changes (vessel leakage), brought about by injury. He stressed the use of mild stimuli to cause minimal damage so the detailed cellular events could be readily defined. Secondly, he and Miles, in analysing chemical mediators of inflammation, characterized globulin permeability factor, now recognized as a trigger for bradykinin production. Thirdly, they defined criteria for characterizing chemical mediators from tissues.

As an investigator Wilhelm was methodical, industrious and persistent. His friend Trevor Dinning stated that he was 'always a well organised and committed person', who appreciated elegant techniques in the experimental setting where tissue reactions could be manipulated. He liked the clean-cut, well defined experiment illustrated in many of his own studies on vascular permeability changes in inflammation. He was exacting in writing up his papers and those of his students.

Wilhelm enjoyed family life. He was a gracious man with a good sense of humour who welcomed students and friends to his home. Following a cholecystectomy in the 1970s, Wilhelm's tuberculosis was reactivated. He died suddenly on 24 July 1977 at São Paulo, Brazil, where he was undertaking research. He was cremated. His wife and their son and daughter survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • B. W. Zweifach et al (eds), The Inflammatory Process (NY, 1965)
  • L. McCarthy, Medics at War (Perth, 1995)
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 17 June 1978, p 654
  • private information.

Citation details

H. Konrad Muller, 'Wilhelm, Donald Lancelot (1919–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wilhelm-donald-lancelot-12027/text21573, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 22 September 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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