William Ireland de Courcy Wheeler, surgeon, is born on May 9, 1879 in Dublin, fourth son among six sons and four daughters of William Ireland de Courcy Wheeler, a distinguished doctor, and Frances Victoria Wheeler (née Shaw), cousin of George Bernard Shaw.
Wheeler is educated at Trinity College Dublin (TCD) and loses an eye as a result of an accident but overcomes the disability. He wins a moderatorship, a medal, and prizes and graduates BA (1899) in anatomy, natural science, and experimental science and, following postgraduate study in Berne, an MB, B.Ch., and MD (1902). The following year he receives the Dublin University Biological Association’s medal for his paper Deaths under chloroform. He is appointed demonstrator and assistant to the professor of the TCD anatomy department before becoming honorary surgeon (1904–32) to Mercer’s Hospital, Dublin. He is also attached to several other institutions including the Rotunda Hospital and the National Children’s Hospital. An outstanding teacher, he attracts large numbers to his clinical classes and lectures in surgery to postgraduates at TCD.
Ambitious and abounding in self confidence, Wheeler dedicates all his indomitable energy and time to his work, is a frequent visitor to foreign clinics, becomes a skilled general surgeon and a specialist in orthopaedics, and earns an international reputation. During World War I he serves in the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) and from 1915 converts his private hospital, 33 Upper Fitzwilliam Street, into the Dublin Hospital for Wounded Officers and makes it available to the St. John’s Ambulance brigade and the British Red Cross. He acts as honorary officer in charge and is also surgeon to the Duke of Connaught‘s Hospital for Limbless Soldiers, and honorary surgeon to the forces in Ireland.
In 1916 Wheeler visits the western front, tours the hospitals in Boulogne, and is attached to a casualty clearing station at Remy Siding near Ypres. Returning to Dublin on the request of Robert Jones, he organises the Dublin Military Orthopaedic Centre, Blackrock, where he serves as surgeon (1916–21). His advice is widely sought and he serves on several committees, including the War Office Council of Consulting Surgeons (1917) and the Ministry of Pensions Medical Advisory Council on Artificial Limbs. Promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1918, he receives the General Service Medal and is twice mentioned in dispatches, having courageously treated wounded soldiers under fire during the 1916 Easter Rising. Appointed surgeon-in-ordinary to the lord-lieutenant, he is knighted in 1919.
Principal founder of the Dublin Hospitals’ Club (1922), Wheeler publishes two textbooks, A Handbook of Operative Surgery (1906) and Selected Papers on Injuries and Diseases of Bone (1928). He contributes numerous authoritative papers on a variety of surgical subjects to professional journals and edits the chapter on general surgery in the Medical Annual from 1916 to 1936. Inspector of examinations for the Medical Research Council of Ireland, he is external examiner to universities in Ireland and Scotland. Interested in hospital policy and nursing, he advocates the federation of the smaller hospitals and is chairman of the City of Dublin Nursing Institute. Fellow (1905) and council member (1906), he follows in his father’s footsteps and is elected president (1922–24) of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. He is also president of the Dublin University Biological Association and of the surgical section of the Royal Academy of Medicine in Ireland, and is awarded an honorary ChM from Cairo University in 1928.
Troubled and bewildered by the political situation in Ireland, Wheeler is persuaded by Rupert Guinness, 2nd Earl of Iveagh, to accept the position of visiting surgeon (1932) to the new hospital at Southend-on-Sea, Essex, to which Iveagh had donated £200,000. The departure of such a leading figure in Irish medical circles is widely regretted. His posts in London include surgeoncies to All Saints Hospital for Genito-Urinary Diseases and to the Metropolitan Ear, Nose, and Throat Hospital. The diversity of his interests and his general competence make him a valued member of the editorial staff of several journals including the British Journal of Surgery, the British Journal of Urology, and the American Journal of Surgery, Gynaecology, and Obstetrics. He is also a member of the American Editors Association. He enjoys many affiliations with America, where he is well known and honoured by being elected honorable fellow of the American College of Surgeons and selected as their John B. Murphy orator (1932), and by election as honorary member and president of the Post Graduate Assembly of North America. An active member of the British Medical Association, he is president of the Leinster branch (1925–26) and of the Orthopaedic section (1933), vice-president of the Surgical section (1930, 1932), and chairman of the council and president of the Metropolitan Counties Branch (1938). President of the Irish Medical Schools and Graduates Association, he is awarded their Arnott gold medal in 1935.
During World War II Wheeler serves as consultant surgeon to the Royal Navy in Scotland, with the rank of rear admiral (1939–43), and is posted to Aberdeen. Strong-minded, unconventional, and often controversial, he has a gift for friendship, is charming and good-humoured, and excels in the art of the after-dinner speech. Immensely proud of Dublin’s medical and surgical traditions, he always eagerly returned to Ireland, where he planned to retire and write his memoirs.
Wheeler dies suddenly on September 11, 1943 at his home in Aberdeen and is cremated at the Aberdeen crematorium. As a memorial to his father, he bequeaths his library and that of his father to the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, and also leaves a fund for the Sir William Wheeler memorial medal in surgery.