Skip to main content

Prof. Wilhelmina Behan

1939 - 2005

Wilhelmina Mary Harcourt Behan died on March 19th 2005 in Glasgow, United Kingdom at the age of 66. She was a recognised international authority on muscle pathology. Her interest was in neuromuscular diseases, initially in their immunopathological features and subsequently in viral infections of muscle. She contributed extensively to viral investigations in both polymyositis and more latterly, chronic fatigue syndrome. Her research contributions included over 170 publications and the chapter on muscle in Muir’s textbook of Pathology. She was also a reviewer of manuscripts and grant applications relating to advanced muscle research. Mina applied her research skills to diagnostic cases and was first to diagnose AIDS at postmortem in Scotland. Her clinical skills were remarkable and she was personally congratulated by the eminent Harvard Professor, Benjamin Castleman, for diagnosing the smallest malignant thymoma ever seen. In addition, she set up a specialised muscle clinic to which patients were referred from throughout Britain.

Mina, the daughter of the distinguished physician Dr William Hughes, was born in 1939 in London. She was the granddaughter of the Mayor of Westminster, Reverend Frederick Harcourt Hillersdon, and her mother’s family can be traced back to the Norman Invasion of 1066. She had a distinguished academic career which began with the award of a First Trust Scholar of Great Britain Public Day School Trust in 1956. She later won an open scholarship to study at Bristol University and was one of the few women to study Medicine at that time. As a student, she won the University Martin Memorial Pathology Prize and First Prizes in Anaesthetics and Obstetrics. At her Finals in 1962 she took a First Class Honours Degree with Distinctions in Pathology and Medicine and was awarded the University Gold Medal. After house jobs at the Professorial Units at Bristol Royal Infirmary she went to Cambridge University from 1963 to 1966 as a trainee in Pathology. It was while she was in Cambridge that she met a neurologist, Peter Behan, whom she married. They travelled to the USA where she spent two years as a Senior Resident in Pathology at Harvard Medical School and was appointed Pathologist in Chief of the Veterans Administrations Hospital, Brockton, Massachusetts from 1968 to 1971. Following this she was Assistant Professor of Pathology, Boston University Medical School from 1971 to 1973. In 1974, on returning to the United Kingdom, Mina joined the Department of Pathology at Glasgow University as Lecturer and subsequently, Senior Lecturer and Professor.

Mina was an extremely popular Professor at Glasgow University both to colleagues and students alike. She organised the Honours BSc course in Molecular and Cellular Pathology with the chief aim of training young scientists and medical students to carry out high quality research. In 1999, she set up a second course on “Unusual Infections of the Nervous System” and both courses were always oversubscribed. She supervised numerous higher degrees during which her students were taught to speak clearly and confidently. She ensured that they always had projects which led to excellent theses and publications.

Throughout her life Mina was extremely hardworking and demonstrated enormous dedication and organisational skills. Although highly successful, she remained a modest and quietly spoken woman who was devoted to her family. She had an encyclopaedic knowledge of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Henry James. She died after a long and cruel illness which she bore with enormous courage. She is survived by her husband (a retired Professor of Neurology), three children (a neurology specialist registrar, a cardiology specialist registrar and a medical senior house officer) and two grandchildren.