Whelan, Robert Ford (1922–84), physiologist, was born 22 December 1922 in Belfast, the eldest of the two sons of Robert Henry Whelan, civil servant, and Dorothy Ivy Whelan (née Whittington). His father was born in Dublin and came from a protestant family where practically all of the men worked in the civil service, while his mother was from the Isle of Wight. In the aftermath of the Anglo–Irish treaty, early in 1922 the Whelans moved to Belfast, where young Robert was born shortly afterwards. Educated at Bloomfield collegiate school and Knock grammar school, he originally intended to follow the family tradition and become a civil servant. However, the outbreak of the second world war may have influenced his change of mind, and he entered QUB in 1940 to study medicine. After a brilliant undergraduate career he graduated MB, B.Ch., BAO in 1946 and proceeded MD in 1951, his thesis receiving high commendation. While still an undergraduate he regularly volunteered as a human subject for the physiological experiments of Henry Barcroft (qv) (1904–98) and W. G. Allen.
Whelan worked initially as a resident medical officer at the Belfast City Hospital (1946–7), where his interest was principally in surgery. In 1948 he took the opportunity to travel when he became ship's surgeon for the Glen Line/Alfred Holt Company on the motor vessel Glenogle during its passage to Australia via the Far East. Having returned to Belfast in September 1948, he began his academic career as a lecturer in physiology at QUB (1948–51), where he became enthralled by the physiological research then in progress and abandoned his interest in surgery. He moved to London briefly on a research fellowship at St Thomas's Hospital (1951–2) and then returned to Belfast as joint lecturer in physiology between QUB and the Northern Ireland Hospitals Authority (1952–7). During this time, as well as studying for a Ph.D., awarded in 1955, he contributed to a pioneering research group working on vascular physiology that included A. D. M. Greenfield, John Shepherd, and Ian Roddie. This period established his credentials as a first-rate physiologist and a meticulously organised and resourceful scientist.
On the recommendation of Charles Best – co-discoverer of insulin and a recent guest of his at QUB – in 1957 Whelan was invited to take up the professorship in the Department of Human Physiology and Pharmacology at the University of Adelaide, where he remained from 1958 to 1971. During his tenure he rapidly raised the profile of the department, making it one of the best-known centres of cardiovascular research in Australia and internationally. As well as holding the position of honorary consulting physiologist at the Royal Adelaide Hospital (1959–71), he served as vice-dean and then dean of the faculty of medicine (1964 and 1965). With the growth of his reputation as a talented and successful administrator, he moved to Perth in 1971, when the university senate invited him to become vice-chancellor of the University of Western Australia. Again he transformed the university structure that he found, and he started to be mentioned as a candidate for the presidency of an American or British university. On 1 January 1977 he was appointed vice-chancellor at the University of Liverpool, where once more he was instrumental in boosting the research profile of the university and in weathering the economic downturn that faced all universities at the time.
Throughout his career Whelan distinguished himself as a leader, holding several important positions in professional, government, and industrial bodies, in Australia and later in the UK. He exerted a major influence on the development of medical science in Australia through his work as a board member of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute for Medical Research and as president of various national and international clinical and physiological societies. In 1980 he had the unusual honour of being elected directly to fellowship of the RCP, and he was due to be knighted in the new year's honours list of 1985. He had always maintained an affection for his birthplace and represented its interests as a member of the review body on higher education in Northern Ireland, also known as the Chilver committee (1979–81).
During the active phase of his research career between 1948 and 1971, Whelan published ninety-six papers, mostly concerned with factors affecting control of the peripheral human circulation. The most significant of these papers dealt with the nervous control of blood vessels and the role of pressure receptors in the reflex control of muscle vessels. The quality and quantity of his published work was acknowledged when he was awarded a D.Sc. from QUB (1960) and made a fellow of the Australian Academy of Science (1966).
Known as ‘Bob’ to his friends, Whelan was a gifted teacher, and he enjoyed the affection and respect of staff and students alike. His personal qualities informed his success as an administrator and supported his meteoric rise in medical administration nationally when he returned to the UK. Courteous, generous, charming, and always well groomed, he was a natural leader and an excellent chairman who made a point of keeping in touch with the various parts of his organisation. Throughout his career his modest personal habits underpinned his drive and determination. In 1951 he married Helen Elizabeth MacDonald (‘Betty’) Hepburn, a nurse at the Belfast City Hospital, with whom he had three children – two sons and a daughter. His abiding interest was in people and he thoroughly enjoyed entertaining and socialising, where possible blending work with pleasure. He died suddenly 21 November 1984, at the age of sixty-one, while making an impromptu address to a group of students from the National Union of Students on a sit-in protest.