Renowned scientist William J. Whelan, Ph.D., D.Sc., FRS, who retired in 2019 after one of the longest careers in Miller School of Medicine history, passed away on June 5.
Born November 14, 1924, in Salford Lancashire, England, Dr. Whelan began his academic career at the University of Birmingham, where he earned three degrees, and the University of North Wales. He later received appointments at the University of London Lister Institute in 1956 and at the Royal Free Hospital in 1964 as head of the Department of Biochemistry.
Dr. Whelan joined the University of Miami faculty in 1967, becoming the medical school’s second chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, a position he held until 1991.
“Our department had three faculty members, two graduate students and a secretary,” he recalled at an event honoring his retirement. Realizing that Miami was “not on the map” for scientists, in 1968 he launched the Miami Winter Symposium, which he directed until 2008. The conference became an annual event that attracted Nobel Prize winners and other noted researchers from around the world.
A mix of substance and class
“Bill’s recruitment brought substance and a touch of class to the young university and its even younger medical school,” said W. Jarrard (Jerry) Goodwin, M.D., emeritus professor in the Department of Otolaryngology. “His scholarship and steadfast leadership through so many years elevated the faculty in countless ways. It was a true privilege to serve with him.”
Dr. Whelan also became one of the most influential figures shaping the course of the school. Among his contributions were leadership roles in faculty development and governance and in fostering stronger ties between the medical school and UM.
In 1971, together with colleagues in the Department of Medicine, he was instrumental in establishing an innovative and very successful program aimed at addressing the shortage of physicians by providing an accelerated curriculum making it possible for Ph.D.s to receive the M.D. degree in two years. He understood the importance of enhancing the school’s academic structure and did so through his own research accomplishments and by willingly and effectively undertaking leadership positions in international scientific organizations and publications.
“Bill Whelan deserves much of the credit for the Miller School’s international reputation for basic research,” said Henri R. Ford, M.D., M.H.A., dean and chief academic officer. “His legacy of dedication to biomedical discovery and innovation can be felt here every day.”
An important discovery
Dr. Whelan was known in scientific circles for his discovery of glycogenin — the “missing link” in the molecular pathway that turns the body’s stored glucose into glycogen, the fuel for muscle cells. Dr. Whelan began studying glycogen synthesis in 1950, but it took him another three decades to overcome scientific skepticism and lost funding to make his game-changing discovery.
“Bill was the pillar that our Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology was built on,” said Sylvia Daunert, Pharm.D., M.S., Ph.D., professor and Lucille P. Markey Chair. “He brought top-notch science to our school and to Miami. Bill recruited many of our most distinguished faculty, and he had many friends who, like him, were prominent biochemists of the 20th century and often visited our campus, enriching the life of our department.”
Dr. Whelan received numerous awards, such as the University of Miami James McLamore Outstanding Service Award and the Faculty Senate’s Distinguished Faculty Scholar Award. Earlier in his career, he received special recognition from biochemical societies in the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, Japan and Australia. He received the FEBS Millennium Medal, Ciba Medal, and many more. His most distinguished honor was election as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1992 “to Improve Natural Knowledge,” — the premier recognition of scientific accomplishment in the United Kingdom.
A memorial service will be announced at a later date.