How pharmacist William Wake’s time in the Royal Navy during the Second World War influenced his career

Pharmacist William Wake received the highest French order for military and civil merits at the end of 2016. Julia Robinson finds out more about his time in the navy during the Second World War and his career in pharmacy.

William Wake, pharmacist

In November 2016, 91-year-old William Wake, or Bill as he is known, became one of 4,100 D-Day veterans to be presented with the Légion D’Honneur — the highest French order for military and civil merits. Some 73 years earlier, an 18-year-old Wake left his job as an errand boy in a pharmacy department to join the navy. Little did he know that this pharmacy role, which he had initially accepted in desperation for any job, would end up influencing his career opportunities for the rest of his life.

Stopgap surgery

Wake was called for service in the Royal Navy on the 2 November 1943. At the end of May 1944, after six months of naval and medical training, his training party was drafted onto landing ship tanks (LSTs) carrying up to 20 tanks as well as other military equipment. Some of the LSTs were adapted so that, after disposing of equipment onto the shore, the empty space could be used as an area to care for wounded men.

Wake remembers vividly his time looking after seriously wounded men and assisting with minor operations.

“We had nothing but sand in front of us and sea behind us, and with casualties on the beach you had to try to do the best for them,” explains Wake. “We had a tiny gazebo which we let down from the bulkhead (an upright wall within the hull of a ship which creates a partition) to form a bit of an operating area… our operating table was two trestles lashed to the deck and the stretcher was placed between the two trestles.

“We were caring for all nationalities, Germans as well, prisoners of war — I remember seeing one man with his lower jaw knocked off altogether,” he recalls.

The forgotten fleet

The requirement for LSTs to transport wounded men to hospital ended in September 1944, when the liberated harbours, such as Calais, and the existence of Mulberry Harbour meant hospital ships could be used instead.

Wake was therefore returned to the Royal Naval Hospital (RNH) Haslar and was immediately posted on the initial work party for the formation of the British Pacific Fleet — the ‘forgotten fleet’ as it became known, due to the fact that its contribution to the defeat of Japan has not been well documented.

The pacific fleet went on to establish RNH Herne Bay, about 20 miles out of Sydney, Australia, where Wake helped treat surviving Japanese prisoners of war and arrange for them to be taken home or back to the UK by boat.

Blessing in disguise

Wake returned to the UK himself in May 1946, keen to pursue a career in medicine rather than pharmacy. Unfortunately however, things did not work out the way he planned.

“I would have liked to have done [medicine] but finance was a problem — it was dependent on getting a grant. The officer examining me said, ‘you were tied up with pharmacy in the navy, not medicine. We can’t give you a grant — we can only give you a grant for pharmacy’,” remembers Wake.

Although disappointed, he says that it ended up being a “blessing in disguise”.

“I was on a very low wage, my mother was a widow and I was trying to help her out. I might have got a grant to do medicine, but it didn’t cover all the other extras that are required when you are on a course,” he explains.

Qualifying as a pharmacist

In those days, to be a pharmacist you were required to have completed matriculation (enrolled in a university as a candidate for a degree) to get accepted into a school of pharmacy, which Wake had not. Fortunately, a civil service preliminary examination was created for the benefit of service people after the war so Wake was able to go down that route. He sat his civil exam, passed, and with his grant he completed what was then the Member of Pharmaceutical Society (MPS) qualification at Sunderland Technical College (now Sunderland University).

Wake was on the first course of training after the war and qualified on 5 July 1948 — incidentally, the same day the NHS was launched. Following this, he completed his Pharmaceutical Chemist (PhC) qualification for a year before starting as an assistant hospital pharmacist at Newcastle General Hospital.

Hospital to community

“Hospital pharmacy was very low pay. I was getting about £8 a week and trying to help out at home, trying to live and trying to save up,” explains Wake. He therefore decided to seize another opportunity. “A friend of mine had one pharmacy and wanted to open up a second in one of the villages. He said ‘would you like to have a go at it?’.”

Wake’s decision was met with a lot of “head-shaking” in the local community of Red Row, ten miles north of Morpeth in Northumberland. “It was a mining area and it was slow going, but it did develop,” he says.

Working with doctors

Being in such a remote area meant the pharmacy was often in competition with the doctors. Wake emphasises: “Some of [the doctors] were dispensing doctors and we didn’t get their patients for a number of years because they were allowed to dispense for any of their patients who lived outside the radius of one mile from the pharmacy.”

He reflects on how different the relationship between pharmacists and doctors used to be compared with today. “[It] used to be a little bit antagonistic – sometimes a pharmacist would apply to open out and the doctor was against it because it was taking some of his living away. But on the other side, the pharmacist had a lot more to offer the patient in what they might purchase, which a dispensing doctor couldn’t.”

He adds: “As it happened with me, the main doctor wanted to get rid of the dispensing so I took on the business that way. [Mine] was the only pharmacy in the area, serving 3,000 to 4,000 people, the bulk of whom were miners working in the pits.”

Long career

In 1961, Wake was given the chance to take on the pharmacy as his own, a challenge he accepted. He continued working there for 30 years until his retirement, during which time he was also secretary for Northumberland Local Pharmaceutical Committee.

Wake rates the success of his pharmacy as being the biggest achievement of his career and maintains that his regular customers kept him going through the long hours. “The point is, you’re dealing with people — you get to know them and their problems.”

Looking back at his time in the navy, Wake says it taught him a number of the qualities he used through his career and was ultimately the reason he went into the caring profession. “[It taught me] discipline, efficiency and [having] pride in yourself. If the war hadn’t been, if I hadn’t gone in, I would not have gone into pharmacy.”

Last updated
The Pharmaceutical Journal, PJ, February 2017, Vol 298, No 7898;298(7898):DOI:10.1211/PJ.2017.20202152

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