Fallen Heroes - In Memoriam

Dr. Thomas Patterson Whitehead
CBE, PhD, MCB, FRCPath, HonMRCP (1923–2005)


Thomas Whitehead Tom Whitehead, Emeritus Professor of Clinical Chemistry at Birmingham University, England, has died aged 82. He was a major figure in international clinical chemistry who pioneered quality assurance in the clinical laboratory. Tom was educated at the Salford Royal Technical College, and at the University of Birmingham, England where he earned a PhD for his work on the biochemical assessment of changes in acid:base state (1). He began his professional career at the South Warwickshire Hospital Group, England in 1950 where he was the first clinical chemist to be appointed.

An insight into Tom’s view of the important role of clinical chemistry as a service to medicine and also of his sense of humor is found in the text of his 1969 Inaugural Lecture as the first Professor of Clinical Chemistry at Birmingham University. The lecture was entitled “A view from a bridge” (2). In it, he expounded on the role of clinical chemistry as one of the many bridges between basic science and medicine, and described the developments in biochemical profiling and data handling using on-line computers that was underway in his new department. In particular, he emphasized that successful departments of clinical chemistry accept that” the provision of a routine service has an intellectual challenge equal to or greater than that found in many scientific activities of a research nature.” Tom was a visionary who spanned a period in our profession when laborious manual assays for a few analytes gave way to highly efficient testing for large panels of tests aided by automation and computing. At the same time he was instrumental in setting in place a quality control scheme that has transformed what he described as the then “scandalous” situation in “Dickensian laboratories” (3,4). This interest in external quality assessment was advanced by a grant in 1969, from the Ministry of Health, and was used to develop the National Quality Control Scheme for Clinical Chemistry. This two-year project evolved into the United Kingdom National External Quality Assessment Service (UK NEQAS), a network of programs that now covers many disciplines within laboratory medicine including Andrology, Chemistry, Genetics, Haematology, Histopathology, Immunology, Leucocyte immunophenotyping, Microbiology) and involves over 7,000 laboratories in the UK and in over 80 countries beyond (5,6). Tom traveled extensively to promote and stimulate the establishment of internal and external schemes internationally, including schemes in Myanmar (Burma), Korea, Mexico, the Middle East, Thailand, and Zimbabwe. He encapsulated his ideas and philosophy in his widely acclaimed book “Quality Control in Clinical Chemistry” (7).

Tom founded the Wolfson Research Laboratories and served as Director from 1972 until 1984 when he began a three-year appointment as Dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry (he was the first non-medically qualified member of the faculty to hold this office). The “Wolfson”, as it was known, embodied Tom’s innovative and pioneering spirit. This unique entity housed, under one roof, a routine clinical chemistry service to the Queen Elizabeth Medical Center and to various epidemiological studies, a WHO Collaborating Centre, the academic Department of Clinical Chemistry, and a multidisciplinary research and development laboratory. In this environment, applications of biochemical profiling (8-10), automation and computing in clinical laboratories flourished (11,12). Tom saw clearly the potential of automated clinical analysis and the importance of computing in overcoming the challenges of large-scale data analysis and automatic distribution of test results to multiple hospital and clinic locations.

Thomas Whitehead - garden An important and unique mission of the Wolfson focused on research and development in clinical laboratory science with the specific intent of promoting innovations that could be taken up by the medical diagnostics industry in the UK (13). This turned out to be a resounding success and significant accomplishments, inspired by Tom’s leadership, were the DACOS random access analyzer (14), the TelePath laboratory management software (15), and the enhanced chemiluminescence technology (16). The Wolfson has had a defining and lasting impact on the careers of many clinical chemists, including the careers of these authors. We were both members of the Wolfson staff and owe Tom an immense debt of gratitude for his guidance and advice, and the rich academic and applied science environment he created, and the benefits that it afforded.

Tom had a firm commitment to education and training. The Wolfson became the headquarters of an MSc and later a PhD training program in clinical chemistry that was a partnership between the University of Birmingham and the local hospitals. This postgraduate training program has launched the careers of many of the senior members of our profession both nationally and internationally.

As emeritus professor, Tom continued his research work. Together with Dr Gary Thorpe, he co-developed a chemiluminescent test for antioxidants and the commercially successful ECLOX test for water quality. Interestingly, one of Tom’s earliest scientific studies related to lead poisoning from home-made wine (17), and ironically, at the end of his career, he renewed his interest in wine through chemiluminescence studies of its beneficial effects in the form of the antioxidants present in red wine (18)!

Throughout his career Tom received many honors and awards. Most notably, he was appointed Commander of the British Empire in 1985, and was also elected as an honorary member of the Royal College of Physicians (London). His success at the Wolfson in technology development and exploitation was recognized through two Queen’s Awards – the first in 1990 for Technological Achievement for the enhanced chemiluminescence technology, and a second for Innovation in 2004 for the ECLOX water contamination testing kit. He was also the recipient of many national and international prizes including the Welcome Prize (1972), Dade Award (1975), Konelab Lecture (1983), IFCC Distinguished International Service Award (1987), and the Rank Prize for Optoelectronics (1991).

Tom, a self-styled “compulsive communicator,” had a global view of medical education and healthcare and was active with the Medical Research Council (London), World Health Organization (Geneva), and other organizations. He was a member of the International Federation of Clinical Chemistry Committee on Standards and was involved in the Expert Panel on the Theory of Reference Values (19). The recognition and development of the profession of clinical chemistry was important to Tom and he held the office of President of the Association of Clinical Biochemists. He was also a member of the Council of the Royal College of Pathologists, where he played a key role in gaining the acceptance of non-medically qualified scientists as candidates for College membership.

Gardening was Tom’s passion. The garden at his home in Leamington Spa was magnificent - a true English garden. He was nationally renown for growing and successfully exhibiting sweet peas. Typical of Tom, he applied his scientific training to this pastime through work on the effect of pH on sweet pea growth.

Tom was an enthusiastic mentor and part of his legacy to our profession is the influence that he and his students and staff have had on the practice of clinical chemistry worldwide. Throughout his career, a guiding principle was that a clinical chemist’s first responsibility is service and that the importance of research was for the betterment of mankind. Many friends and colleagues around the world feel privileged to have known him and to have benefited from his advice, encouragement and friendship – he will be sorely missed. Tom is survived by his wife Doreen and his three children, seven grandchildren and two great grand children.

  1. Whitehead TP. Acid-base status, pH, and PCO2. Lancet 1965;2:1015-6.
  2. Whitehead TP. A view from a bridge. Ann Clin Biochem 1971;8:1-7.
  3. Whitehead TP. Quality control techniques in laboratory services. Br Med Bull 1974;30:237-42.
  4. Whitehead TP. Advances in quality control. Adv Clin Chem 1977;19:175-205.
  5. Whitehead TP. Browning DM. Gregory A. A comparative survey of the results of analyses of blood serum in clinical chemistry laboratories in the United Kingdom. J Clin Pathol 1973;26:435-45.
  6. Whitehead TP, Woodford FP. External quality assessment of clinical laboratories in the United Kingdom. J Clinical Pathol 1981;34:947-57.
  7. Whitehead TP. Quality control in clinical chemistry. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1977.
  8. Whitehead TP. Multiple analyses and their use in the investigation of patients. Adv Clin Chem 1971;14:389-408.
  9. Whitehead TP. Wootton ID. Biochemical profiles for hospital patients. Lancet 1974;2:1439-43.
  10. Whitehead TP. Multiple analyses and their use in the investigation of patients. Adv Clin Chem 1971;14:389-408.
  11. Whitehead TP. The computer in the laboratory. Practitioner. 1969;203:294-505.
  12. Whitehead TP. Automation and the chemical pathologist. Invest Cell Pathol 1978;1:115-7.
  13. Whitehead TP. Production of laboratory equipment for the hospital biochemistry laboratory. Proc Roy Soc Med 1968;61:1057-8.
  14. Duff ID, Bullock DG, Bunce RA et al. Analytical apparatus and methods incorporating cuvette cleaning and cleanliness testing. GB Patent 1981: 1,582,434
  15. Clark IR, Parekh J, Peters M, Frew I, Ibbotson RN. Hospital blood bank laboratory data processing system. J Clin Pathol 1984;37:1157-66.
  16. Thorpe GH, Kricka LJ, Moseley SB, and Whitehead TP. Phenols as enhancers of the chemiluminescent horseradish peroxidase- luminol-hydrogen peroxide reaction: application in luminescence- monitored enzyme immunoassays Clin Chem 1985;31:1335-41.
  17. Whitehead TP. Prior AP. Lead poisoning from home-made wine. Lancet 1960; 2:1343-4.
  18. Whitehead TP, Robinson D, Allaway S, Syms J, Hale A. Effect of red wine ingestion on the antioxidant capacity of serum. Clin Chem 1995;41:32-5.
  19. Grasbeck R, Siest G, Wilding P, Williams GZ, Whitehead TP. Provisional recommendation on the theory of reference values (1978). Part 1. The concept of reference values. Clin. Chem 1979;25:1506-8.
Larry J Kricka and Peter Wilding

Department of Pathology & Laboratory Medicine
University of Pennsylvania Medical Center
PA 19104


Brainstorming the future of clinical chemistry and its future role in health care