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Biographical entry Whetnall, Edith Aileen Maude (1910 - 1965)

MRCS 1939; FRCS 1940; MB BS London 1938; MS 1944; LRCP 1939.

23 October 1965
ENT surgeon


Edith Whetnall was born at Hull in 1910, and trained at King's College Hospital where she graduated in 1938, taking the Conjoint Diploma in 1939, the Fellowship in 1940, and the London MS degree in 1944. She became interested in ear surgery while working at the branches of King's College Hospital at the Horton and Sutton Hospitals during the later years of the second world war, when the services of the London hospitals were deployed outside the centre. She served as ear, nose and throat registrar at King's and was clinical assistant for otological research at the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases, Queen Square.

She was appointed consultant otologist to the London County Council School Medical Service in 1946, succeeding Sir Terence Cawthorne, under whom she had worked at Horton. She now realised the need for clinics to detect deafness in very young children. When she was appointed assistant surgeon to the Royal National Throat Nose and Ear Hospital, she established such a deafness clinic at the Golden Square branch of the Hospital in 1947. Starting with a single consulting room, she made this her life's work, and influenced the formation of similar clinics in many places throughout Britain and abroad. She founded a hostel at Ealing in 1953 for mothers to bring their deaf babies for a week's testing while the mother was trained in special care, since Miss Whetnall maintained that the mother was the true patient who needed skilled guidance and encouragement. A second hostel nearby was started in 1958 for older deaf children to attend for longer periods.

Her enthusiasm and determination were rewarded when the Nuffield Foundation gave more than £100,000 to build the Nuffield Hearing and Speech Centre for the examination and treatment of young deaf children. It was opened in 1963 at the Royal National TNE Hospital, and Miss Whetnall was its Director (as she had been of the preliminary Deafness Aid Clinic) till her untimely death on 23 October 1965, aged fifty-five. She was also consultant aural surgeon to St Giles's Hospital and Queen Mary's Hospital, Carshalton.

Edith Whetnall was a person of transparent genuineness and unselfconscious simple goodness. She had many accomplishments beyond her high surgical training and experience. She wrote well and contributed much to otological and other journals. With D B Fry she published The deaf child in 1964, emphasising the importance of the auditory approach in training deaf children. After her death her husband edited her second book Learning to hear in 1970. She was a fine pianist, an expert gardener interested in uncommon plants, and a skilled painter in water-colour. She had a bad car accident in 1945 and suffered from ill-health for the rest of her life, but never allowed it to interfere with her activities. She was ably supported in all her work by her husband Robert Niven MD, FRCP, who survived her. They lived at 9 Queen Anne Street with a country home at Sanderstead.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Lancet 1965, 2, 911 with eulogy by Professor D B Fry; Brit med J 1965, 2, 1129 with appreciations by ASW and FDH].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England