Downing College was very pleased to receive a large collection of personal papers of Sir Lionel Whitby, alumnus and Master of Downing College (1947-56), donated by the Whitby family in 2019. Over the course of a long and pioneering career in Medicine, he played a significant role in the development of early antibiotics – the sulphonamides – and assisted in the treatment and recovery of both the King (in 1928) and the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, at the height of the Second World War. He was commanding officer of the Army Blood Transfusion Service during the war, returning to Cambridge in 1945 as Regius Professor of Physic and Master of Downing College from 1947, also serving as Vice-Chancellor from 1951-3. A major exhibition was mounted in September 2019 featuring highlights from the collection and sharing aspects of Sir Lionel's life and work. A book published by the family, based on the content of the exhibition, is available to researchers on request.

Early life and military service

Lionel Ernest Howard Whitby was born on 8 May 1895 and educated at Bromsgrove School. He won an open scholarship to study Medicine at Downing College in 1914 but, with the outbreak of war, enlisted in the Royal Fusiliers instead and gained his commission as a machine gun officer in the Royal West Kent Regiment. He served in Serbia, Salonika, Gallipoli and France, where he was awarded a Military Cross in 1917 for gallantry at Passchendaele. In March 1918, by then an acting Major, he was severely wounded and had his right leg amputated near the hip. As a result of his injuries, he retired from the Army and matriculated at Downing College in October 1918.

Medical training and early career

Lionel spent three years at Downing College, before completing his clinical training at the Middlesex Hospital from 1921. During his studies in Cambridge, he met Ethel Murgatroyd, a medical student from Newnham College. They married in 1922 and enjoyed a happy and devoted family life together. Dr. Whitby was appointed as Assistant Pathologist at the Middlesex Hospital in 1923. He published his first textbook, Medical Bacteriology, in 1928. His growing reputation brought him to the attention of Dr Bertrand Dawson, Viscount Dawson of Penn and physician to King George V. As a result, he was requested to assist in the treatment of the King at Buckingham Palace in 1928. This work led to his appointment as a Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (CVO).

Dr. Whitby continued his research at the Bland Sutton Institute until the outbreak of war. By the early 1930s, he was supervising routine bacteriology and blood tests for the Hospital, giving lectures and practical classes for students, running an extensive private practice and preparing new editions and updates to his medical textbooks. In 1936 he began work on the biological assessment of new synthetic compounds – the sulphonamides – produced by May & Baker Ltd, studying their efficiency in treating bacterial infections. In 1938, after several trials, he identified the activity of sulphapyridine (‘M & B 693’) in the treatment of pneumococcal pneumonia. He was awarded the 1940 John Hunter Triennial Medal for this work. After successful hospital trials, the drug was released and would later be used to treat the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, and Lionel himself in 1944. In 1945 he was knighted for ‘services in the development of the sulphonamide group of drugs’.

WW2 and the Army Blood Transfusion Service

As the Second World War approached, Dr Whitby, then a Colonel in the Territorial Army, was made officer in charge of the Army Blood Transfusion Service. He was stationed at the Army Blood Supply Depot at Southmead Hospital, Bristol, and was assisted by his wife, Ethel – responsible for the bleeding of donors - who rose to the rank of Major and was possibly the first woman commissioned in the Royal Army Medical Corps.

Under Whitby’s command, the Service provided blood and plasma for troops across Europe, the Middle East and Far East. By 1943 the supply depot was preparing 20-25,000 pints of processed blood every month. Major-General Ogilvie, a surgeon in the RAMC, described the development of the transfusion service as the 'greatest surgical advance of this war, more important even than penicillin'. In 1945, Brigadier Whitby was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Society of Medicine for his work on wound shock and blood transfusions. The Society’s President, Sir Gordon Gordon-Taylor, the man who had saved Whitby’s life in 1918, described him as 'the greatest vampire the world has known'.

Brigadier Whitby continued to lecture to medical students during the war and assisted Lord Moran, personal physician to Winston Churchill, when he developed pneumonia twice at the height of the war. In February 1943, the Prime Minister was managed at home with the advice of Whitby and others, praising ‘this admirable M & B’ for his recovery in his personal address on 29 December. In August-September 1944, Churchill’s illness was not made public. When he sailed for the Quebec Conference on the Queen Mary on 6 September 1944, he was attended by Lord Moran and Brigadier Whitby, whose diary from the journey detailed anxiety over the Prime Minister’s health.

Return to Cambridge

In 1945, Sir Lionel was elected as an Honorary Fellow of Downing College and Regius Professor of Physic at the University of Cambridge. On 22 May 1947 he was elected as the ninth Master of Downing College, also serving as Vice-Chancellor of the University for two years from October 1951 (pictured above returning from his installation ceremony). During his time as Master, Sir Lionel oversaw significant changes in the College, including the completion of the North Range and Chapel in 1953. He was a popular Master, combining his College responsibilities with a hectic schedule of medical teaching and hospital work, lectures and the continued publication of academic papers and revisions to his medical textbooks.

Sir Lionel remained active outside Cambridge. He was President of the British Medical Association in 1948 (when the National Health Service was formed) and Chairman of its Education Committee. In 1953, he was President of the First World Conference on Medical Education. He was widely known in the United States, which he frequently visited, and in 1956 he conducted an extensive lecture tour of Australia and New Zealand as Sims Travelling Professor. After his death shortly afterwards, on 24 November 1956, the College launched the Whitby Memorial Fund appeal in his memory, with an overwhelming response from members. The first Whitby Scholarship was announced in 1958. The following year, the University announced the establishment of the Sir Lionel Whitby Medal for an M.D. thesis ‘of exceptional merit’. This is still awarded each year in his memory.

The College Archivist is very grateful to Sir Lionel’s family for their help and generosity in making the exhibition possible and donating many of his personal papers, photographs and other items to the College. 

A catalogue of the collection – now open to researchers - is available to search via the University’s online archive catalogue, ArchiveSearch.


The gallery below features selected photographs and documents from the exhibition and archive collection. All photographs are reproduced with kind permission of the Whitby and Kennedy families.