Victor Wynn

BMJ 2007; 334 doi: (Published 22 February 2007) Cite this as: BMJ 2007;334:430
  1. Caroline Richmond

    Pioneer of metabolic studies of heart disease and founder of an institute

    Victor Wynn was one of the first people to specialise in the study of metabolism and established a research laboratory at St Mary's Hospital, followed by founding and funding the Cavendish Institute, an independent establishment that was later renamed the Wynn Institute. He pioneered electrolyte measurement, now a routine part of post-surgical care and essential to the treatment of kidney failure.

    He had strong views—some would say a bee in his bonnet—about the dangers of the contraceptive pill. He was one of the first to recognise the importance of risk factors for cardiovascular disease and their modification. He also undertook the first large studies of the effects of the pill on sugar and fat metabolism, and the changes he observed resembled those seen in men at increased risk of heart disease. He published his findings in the Lancet in 1966, creating a furore. He was interviewed on the Frost Programme, and the resulting scare led the then health secretary, Richard Crossman, to accuse Wynn of making “10 000 women pregnant on a single night.”

    He established two charities, the Heart Disease and Diabetes Research Trust and the Atherosclerosis Research Institute, which have jointly raised £15m.

    When he arrived in 1950 to work in the surgery department at St Mary's, the importance of electrolyte measurement was barely recognised and metabolic medicine did not exist as a clinical specialty. Wynn changed all that.

    Wynn was born in Melbourne into a well-known wine growing family. From Wesley College, Melbourne, he went to Melbourne University, and did his clinical training and house jobs at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, qualifying in 1944.

    He was a medical officer in the Australian air force from 1945 to 1948 and later in his career, from 1963, was a civilian consultant to the Royal Air Force.

    He returned to Melbourne as a research fellow researching electrolyte measurement, which in those days was not a normal part of medical practice. He came to St Mary's in 1950, rising to junior lecturer in 1953; consultant in clinical biochemistry in 1954, and reader in human metabolism in 1960. He was made Britain's first professor of human metabolism in 1969.

    Wynn displayed a can-do Australian spirit in setting up his first laboratory at St Mary's, commandeering unused hospital space and acquiring the components he needed for his electrolyte measurements from local shops. This entrepreneurial directness, which characterised his approach to research, set him apart from, and at times, at odds with, more conventional colleagues.

    He was very good at raising funds from wealthy philanthropists, and often urged his colleagues to emulate him. At his instigation, in 1953 the hospital approved plans to set up a metabolic unit, though it took 16 years to create a 10-bed metabolic ward. The laboratory facilities were insufficient, but, despite a squeeze on medical education and research, the university grants committee approved a small capital grant to buy the former British Rail stables and rebuild them as a metabolic unit. Money was raised from ex-patients and from Dr Leonard Simpson, the hospital's consultant endocrinologist, whose family owned the department store in Piccadilly (the model for the television comedy series Are You Being Served?). Wynn got the Turriff construction company to construct the building free of charge.

    The new laboratories were called the Mint Wing, and by the time it opened Wynn's interests had turned from electrolytes and renal failure to endocrinology and the long term administration of synthetic steroids. When anabolic steroids were new in the 1960s and were known to prevent muscle wasting and aid recovery from surgery, Wynn showed that they had potent side effects in fat and sugar metabolism, and cautioned against their use. In 1966 he predicted that women taking the pill would be at increased risk of heart attack, and epidemiological studies showed him to be right. In the 1970s he urged cardiologists to pay attention to patients' cholesterol concentrations, and in the 1980s he called on the food industry to sell “heart friendly” products.

    During this time he was a consultant to the Royal Air Force, British Airways, and the Civil Aviation Authority.

    On his retirement from St Mary's, aged 66, he used his energy and fundraising skills to found the Cavendish Institute, located some distance from the hospital and affiliated to the UK National Heart and Lung Institute. It has since been renamed the Wynn Institute and is affiliated to Imperial College.

    In 2001 in Melbourne the Wynn Department of Metabolic Cardiology was opened. In 2006 Wynn was made a Fellow of Imperial College. He suffered from heart disease for the last 30 years of his life.

    He leaves a wife, Marianne, emeritus professor of German, and a daughter.

    Victor Wynn, former professor of human metabolism London University, and chairman Wynn Institute for Metabolic Research (b 1920; q Melbourne 1944; MD, FRCP, FRCPath), d 6 October 2006.

    View Abstract

    Log in

    Log in through your institution


    * For online subscription