Dr. Thomas F. Wheeldon, 1892-1976
Alfred S. Martin, Mountaintop, Pennsylvania
Dr. Thomas F. Wheeldon is truly a man of many parts and his recent death leaves a large void in many fields. This is especially true in the American Rhododendron Society as we honored his accomplishments with the Gold Medal in 1'973. He was one of the few remaining members who covered almost the entire span of the Society's existence. During 1951, Tom Wheeldon began a series of meetings in the Richmond area which culminated with the formation and charter of the Middle Atlantic Chapter in 1952. Today when we have 19 eastern chapters with members counted by hundreds it is difficult for us to realize that the New York Chapter was the only other chapter in existence East of the Mississippi.
Dr. Wheeldon served as president of the Middle Atlantic Chapter for ten years from 1956 to 1966 and as secretary-treasurer until fairly recently. Many of the chapters in the southeastern states can in one way or another trace their origin to the Middle Atlantic Chapter. For a good many early eastern rhododendron enthusiasts, the annual meetings of the Middle Atlantic Chapter served as eastern regional meetings. During the course of the Middle Atlantic Chapter's annual meetings, he instituted a judges' training course for three years which was well received. During 1962, Tom Wheeldon worked hard to organize the first annual meeting of the ARS on the East Coast at Winterthur, Delaware. This meeting started the alternating pattern of our annual meetings between East and West.
There have been few more ardent or precise collectors than Tom Wheeldon. His garden at Gladsgay contains perhaps the largest collection of Glendale azaleas in private hands and other rare collections such as Wilson's Fifty. The extremely well documented collection shows over 2,000 varieties of azaleas and rhododendrons with total plants numbered in tens of thousands. While not an ardent hybridizer, Dr. Tom was a meticulous propagator of great skill. He kept extremely detailed records on every phase of his nursery operations. Years ago his unique heating and watering systems and sterile practices were in advance of general acceptance in the field of propagation.
A brilliant student with a facile mind, Tom Wheeldon entered college at the age of thirteen. He received bachelor's and master's degrees in Science in his native University of Missouri before going to Harvard Medical School. Some of the sectional studies that he made in microscopy anatomy were considered classics and still are displayed at the medical school museum. Immediately after World War II, he became one of the first orthopedic surgeons practicing in Virginia. Many of his surgical techniques and individually designed instruments were well in advance of their time. One of Dr. Wheeldon's more notable achievements was the organization and operation of thirteen charity clinics in Virginia and North Carolina for crippled children. He pioneered the belief that the treatment should be brought to the children rather than the children to the treatment. As evidence of notable success in his work with crippled children, he was made an honorary member of Rotary International in 1950.
Always a gracious host, his gardens , and propagations were a joy to visit. Despite a remarkable collection of antiques, the Wheeldon house always remained a home and was permeated by a deep sense of family loyalty, love, and devotion. It is hoped that his magnificent collection of plants will survive although their preservation presents a task of formidable magnitude.