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Wilkinson, Herbert John (1891–1963)

by Geoffrey Kenny

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

Herbert John Wilkinson (1891-1963), anatomist, was born on 15 December 1891 at Norwood, Adelaide, fifth of six children of South Australian-born parents Frank Wilkinson, accountant, and his wife Amelia, née Smith. Herbert spent his early childhood in the north of the State, before moving with his family back to Adelaide where he attended Flinders Street Public School. In 1907 he was accepted on probation at the Pupil Teachers' School; he taught (1909-10) at Flinders Street and in 1911 entered University Training College. In 1913 he taught at Adelaide High School while studying part time at the University of Adelaide (B.A., 1914). On 29 April 1915 at St Martin's Church of England, Kensington, Sydney, he married Elsie Butler Hughes; next month he took up a post as teacher of chemistry at Brisbane Grammar School.

In 1916 Wilkinson joined the staff of Sydney Grammar School. Four years later he enrolled in medicine at the University of Sydney (M.B., Ch.M., 1925; M.D., 1930). During his course he demonstrated in histology and on graduation was appointed lecturer in anatomy and histology. Influenced by Professor J. I. Hunter, he began his research on the innervation of skeletal muscle. He also investigated the nervous mechanism responsible for changes in size of the pupil of the eye; this work was published in 1927 in the Medical Journal of Australia. That year he won the Peter Bancroft prize for research in medicine and was promoted to senior lecturer. Awarded a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship, he travelled to Europe and the United States of America and continued (1928-30) his inquiry into the innervation of striated muscle. His main interest was the alleged 'double innervation' of the muscle fibres peculiar to skeletal muscle by nerve fibres originating from two different sites, the spinal cord and the sympathetic nervous system. He demonstrated that the muscle fibres were innervated solely by nerve fibres from the cord, and that the nerve fibres from the sympathetic nervous system were concerned only with the innervation of intramuscular blood-vessels. His findings, published in the M.J.A. in 1929, disproved Hunter's interpretation of the role of sympathetic nerve fibres and excited considerable controversy. After further experiments, he confirmed his conclusions in an article that appeared in the Journal of Comparative Neurology in 1934.

With a developing international reputation in neuromuscular research, Wilkinson was appointed (Sir Thomas) Elder professor of anatomy and histology at the University of Adelaide in 1930. He was awarded an M.D. by that university in 1934. In 1936 he moved to Brisbane to become foundation professor of anatomy and dean of the faculty of medicine at the University of Queensland's new medical school. He played a vital part in setting up the school and designing the buildings. After writing the foreword to Elizabeth Kenny's contentious book Infantile Paralysis and Cerebral Diplegia (Sydney, 1937), he lost the support of those in the medical profession who were opposed to Kenny's methods of treating poliomyelitis.

In February 1938 members of the medical faculty were upset when a newspaper reported—without Wilkinson's prior knowledge—his suggestion that the university employ full-time clinicians to take charge of hospital departments concerned with teaching medical students. The proposal was intended as a compromise between the views of the doctors, who preferred to retain the honorary system, and of C. E. Chuter, under-secretary of the Department of Health and Home Affairs, who wanted full-time salaried specialist staff in public hospitals. Unable to convince the medical faculty that he had not 'leaked' his report to the press, he was replaced as dean. In 1944 the university conferred on him his third M.D. He served as dean again in 1954-57 and, after retiring in 1959 due to ill health, was made professor emeritus.

Of medium build and fair complexion, Wilkinson had an urbane and agreeable manner and a distinct presence. In 1945 he was president of the Royal Society of Queensland. A man of wide cultural interests, including music and the history of medicine, he constantly encouraged his students to take an interest in other disciplines. Known as 'Wilkie', he was celebrated in the students' song book as 'the cultured professor'. Since his school days he had been interested in Aboriginal culture: he was founding president (1948-50), vice-president (1951-55) and council-member (1956-60) of the Anthropological Society of Queensland. With L. P. Winterbotham, he helped to found (1948) the ethnological museum at the university. Predeceased by his wife and son, he died on 15 February 1963 at Herston, Brisbane, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Kelly (ed), The University of Queensland Union Song Book (Brisb, 1947)
  • R. L. Doherty (ed), A Medical School for Queensland (Brisb, 1986)
  • H. Gregory, Vivant Professores (Brisb, 1987)
  • G. Kenny, 'H. J. Wilkinson—the Travail of a Pioneer with Muscle', in J. Pearn (ed), Pioneer Medicine in Australia (Brisb, 1988)
  • M. J. Eadie, The Flowering of a Waratah (Syd, 2000)
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 8 June 1963, p 869
  • Telegraph (Brisbane), 28 Feb 1938
  • Wilkinson personal file (University of Queensland Archives)
  • private information.

Citation details

Geoffrey Kenny, 'Wilkinson, Herbert John (1891–1963)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wilkinson-herbert-john-12028/text21575, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 18 September 2019.

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

View the front pages for Volume 16

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