Obituary: Professor David Wilkie, lecturer in botany at the University College, London

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Born: 6 August, 1923, in Paisley. Died: 3 March, 2013, in Surrey, aged 89

PROFESSOR David Wilkie was a much-respected genetic scientist whose research into various aspects of medicine greatly benefited medical science. He gained a worldwide reputation when he contributed to a paper (From Genetics to Molecular Biology) along with several distinguished American universities.

In the 1950s, Wilkie set up a Genetics Department at the newly-created Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. Wilkie was a highly regarded member of the Cell Biology Department at University College, London (UCL), where he worked after being educated, attending Glasgow University and then serving with much distinction in the Royal Air Force in the Far East during the Second World War. Wilkie flew numerous missions and on being demobbed in 1946 said that he had flown every day for four years and never wanted to fly again.

Jeremy Hyams (Emeritus Professor of Cell Biology at UCL) was a colleague of Wilkie’s for many years and much admired his scholarship and inquiring mind. “His research was far-reaching and the innovative work David did in the 1970s much benefited the research into, for example, cancer – in particular, as targets for chemotherapy.

“David was a scrupulous researcher – exploring many aspects of genetic medicine and by 1963 he published an authoritative paper which became the standard reference book on the subject.

“This was a risky, even foolhardy, research venture in the early 1960s, but – with typical patience and resourcefulness – David was able to show that not only did such genes exist, but also that they were linked.”

David Wilkie attended his local Paisley school, St Mirin’s Academy, and then read botany at Glasgow University. While at school, he got a cap when he played for the Scottish schoolboys and later he played for Queen’s Park.

In 1942, Wilkie broke off his studies at Glasgow University and volunteered to serve in the RAF. He trained in South Africa to fly Spitfires and, on gaining his wings, was transferred to Burma to fly Hurricanes in the war against Japan. At the end of the war, he remained in the Far East and provided assistance in the evacuation of the prisoners of war from Changi Prison who had experienced such savage treatment for several years.

Wilkie also served as the personal pilot to Air Officer Commanding RAF Burma, Hugh Saunders (later Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Saunders).

He returned to Glasgow University and after completing his degree he remained in the city in order to carry out further genetic research under the distinguished geneticist Guido Pontecorvo. Their work was mostly involved in the fine structure mapping of genes.

Wilkie wrote his PhD during these years and in 1954 was appointed to a lectureship in the Department of Botany, UCL, where he remained for the rest of his distinguished career.

For two years from 1959, Wilkie was seconded on a Rockefeller Foundation Visiting Fellowship to the Genetics Department of the University of Washington, Seattle. It was then that he was involved in the research programme with various other American universities.

Wilkie combined his extensive research with incisive lectures and greatly encouraged students through his interest in their studies and general university life. He kept in touch with post-graduate students, regularly advising on their careers and academic matters.

He was also a patient and meticulous examiner. At student gatherings, Wilkie is fondly remembered as a genial guest and needed little encouragement to lead the assembled company in a hearty chorus of, “She’ll be coming round the mountain” on his much loved mouth organ.

Wilkie retired from UCL in 1988, but continued his research a couple of days a week – delighting in making himself available to a new generation of students. “The students much valued David’s eminence and scholarship,” Professor Hymans recalls with a smile. “Though perhaps that was because David always had shortbread on offer for afternoon tea.

“David was a great guy. A proud and ardent Scot, a keen sportsman and I was honoured to have shared my working life with such a distinguished scientist.”

Wilkie and his family did remain in close contact with Scotland – returning every year for family holidays and to play golf at the Bushes in Paisley. He attended Burns Night Suppers in Surrey in the kilt and much enjoyed playing both the piano and guitar.

His daughter Louise recalls that her father “used to play the guitar to us at night instead of a bedtime song. When we were on holiday, he would read scientific papers – never anything frivolous. Science was his life.”

David Wilkie is survived by his wife Moreen, whom he married in 1948, and their younger daughter Louise. His elder daughter, Alice, predeceased him.