Rex Whitworth’s athletics background was unique among the Great Britain team members in Paris for the match with France on Sunday 2 September 1945 – six years, almost exactly to the day, since the fixture was supposed to have taken place but was then delayed somewhat by the outbreak of World War II. Whitworth had left Cheadle Hulme School, in Cheshire, in the summer of 1939, had then gone to Cambridge University to begin his medical studies, and had been awarded a scholarship to the USA, where he had competed in the prestigious inter-college “Big Ten” meetings, both indoors and out, during 1943-44.
He continued his medical career at St Thomas’s Hospital, in London, and then with the RAF before returning to the USA in 1949 with his wife, who he had first met in Iowa, and three-year-old daughter, and he spent the rest of his life in that country. When he died in Roseville, California, on 3 September 2008, at the age of 88, his obituary in the local “Monterey Herald” newspaper was lavish in its praise of him, as such articles often are, but the many dozens of tributes which were sent in to the funeral-home by members of the public were confirmation that Dr Whitworth had led a very valued life. He was the personification of “healthcare” more than half-a-century before President Obama attempted to make it available to all Americans.
Rex Hancock Whitworth had been born at Clayton, in Manchester, on 6 May 1920, where his father was a chemist at a local works. Clayton was a district of the city which prompted Frank Pritchard, who had lived there in the 1920s, to write wittily in his reminiscences that it “was rather a posh area, and beyond Bank Street one rarely saw children bare-footed or with their breeches’ behind torn and tattered”. From 1927 Whitworth was sent to public boarding school at Cheadle Hulme, as was his younger brother, Brian (born 29 April 1922), from 1930, and both showed excellent all-round ability in various sports. Brian had also been given the additional first name of “Hancock”, which was their mother’s maiden name. There does not appear to be any link to James Hancock, from Salford, which is six miles from Clayton, who had been one of the leading professional sprinters of the 1850s.
At Cambridge Rex competed in the unofficial wartime Inter-Varsity matches, and his best performances were probably his 120 yards hurdles win in 15.8 against Birmingham and London Universities in May 1942 and his easy 220 yards hurdles success against Oxford the same month in a time of 25.4. He also played wing-threequarter in the winning Cambridge rugby-union team against Oxford that year. Yet even all that summer and winter activity was not enough for him because he also listed cricket, squash rackets, swimming and tennis among his pastimes when he applied for a $2500 Roosevelt Scholarship to the University of Iowa, long noted for its specialisation in health care. His submission was successful, and having graduated from Cambridge he set sail in July of 1942 from Avonmouth with other medical students to New York on what must have been a perilous transatlantic crossing.
His brother was meanwhile at Manchester University, where he competed with some success at the 100 yards and 120 and 440 yards hurdles and had a capable long-jump best of 21ft 6½in (6.55m). The university athletics team was captained by Harry Whittle, a future Olympic long jump and 400 metres hurdles finalist, who in those earlier days was valiantly combining half-miling with the high jump, shot and javelin and would later win an AAA decathlon title. Brian Whitworth was complimented by “The Manchester Guardian” in July 1941 as being “one of the most promising athletes who have ever been at the university”.
Back on the track in Britain in 1945, Rex Whitworth won the 120 hurdles in that acclaimed August Bank Holiday meeting at the White City Stadium, in London, where 50,000 spectators were crammed inside and tens of thousands more locked out. According to Harold Abrahams in “The Times”, Whitworth “gave a nice exhibition of hurdling, even if the time was not first-class”. It was a modest 16.1, but Whitworth had run a much more impressive 15.2 in winning at Loughborough on 14 July. It’s worth bearing in mind here that only 13 Britons had ever run faster than that, most notably including Lord Burghley, Don Finlay and future AAA national coach Geoff Dyson, all in pre-war years. No Northern athlete had ever previously done better than 15.6 – by George Gray, of Salford Harriers, in 1920 (though unconfirmed) and by Kenneth Walker, of Manchester University, in 1934, and that latter performance was designated as wind-assisted.
The majority of the British team for the 1945 match against the French in Paris were still in uniform and therefore very much short of training for competition at that level. The hosts, by contrast, had continued with a normal programme of meetings throughout the German occupation. The British selectors, having been persuaded against their better judgment by the Government that such a commitment was in the interest of Anglo-French relations, had little choice in the matter in providing some sort of opposition with such limited resources, and Whitworth’s partner was a 22-year-old university student, William Stafford, whose best was only 16.7. The seasoned French pair, Gilbert Omnès and Henri Maignan, had run 14.9 and 15.0 respectively within the preceding couple of months for the almost identical 110 metres hurdles (120.2 yards).
All credit, then, to Whitworth for pushing Omnès desperately close, 15.5 to 15.6, and Harold Abrahams was again impressed, noting in the “Manchester Guardian” that Whitworth “did well to finish 2nd in the hurdles, coming up in the last 30 yards to displace Maignan”. Even the British No.2 set a personal best of 16.5. Of the 22 members of the British team the single winner was Sydney Wooderson at 1500 metres, and 10 of them were making their one and only international appearance, among whom no one other than Whitworth and John Panton, a Scots 400 metres runner, earned a 2nd place. Of the nine European high hurdlers who ran 15.0 or faster in this formative season after peace had been declared, four were from the neutral countries, Sweden and Switzerland.
Whitworth went on to enjoy a creditable career in services’ and inter-club competition after missing out the 1946 season (final exams, maybe?). He was RAF champion in the long jump in 1947 and 1948, with a best of 22ft 6in (6.86m) in the first of those years, leaving the high hurdles to the resurgent pre-war Olympic double medalist, Don Finlay, but came close to deputising for the grey-haired Group Captain at the 1948 Olympics. Finlay’s fitness was in doubt beforehand – after all, he was now aged 38 – and Whitworth was named as official replacement, having managed the unusual feat of finishing 2nd in the Northern 120 hurdles (to another Olympian, 18-year-old Joe Birrell) and 4th in the Southern (to Finlay). Whitworth was then 5th in the AAA final.
Whitworth’s career finished honourably with 2nd place to Finlay by only a yard in the prestigious 1949 Kinnaird Trophy inter-club meeting and ahead of a future British record-holder, Jack Parker, though even Finlay was slowed, for some unaccountable reason, to 16.0 on the Chiswick track. A week later Whitworth, now 29 and a fully-qualified doctor, sailed in style from Southampton to New York on the liner, “Queen Elizabeth”, with his wife, young daughter and the family cook. As a paediatrician he first worked in Iowa City and San Francisco and then was offered a post in the Monterey area in 1951 and mostly stayed there until his retirement in 1998. As well as private practice, he was in regular attendance at the local community hospital and government clinics, was director of a medical centre and set up a family practice programme.
The “Monterey Herald” said of him that he “was a brilliant, vibrant and deeply humane person who will be missed terribly by his family and friends, but he also leaves an enormous ‘extended family’ of former patients and colleagues who were fortunate enough to experience his outstanding skills … he was passionate about providing the very best care to all children, regardless of social or financial circumstances”. When he died he was survived by his brother, Brian, and his sister, Joan, who was living in Edinburgh, and by his second wife, three daughters and a son, three grand-children, and a step-family. His brother, who had gone into the Army after graduating from Manchester University and then worked for ICI and Imperial Metals, died in Stockport, in Cheshire, on 1 January 2011, aged 89.
Thanks to Neil Shuttleworth for research into the athletics careers of the Whitworth brothers.