Physical distancing restrictions didn’t stop Henry Malcolm Whyte from celebrating his 100th birthday in October.
The last-standing 1944 University of Queensland Medicine graduate hosted a Zoom birthday party attended by 200 guests from around the world, who shared stories, photos and speeches before conducting a mass cake and candle blow-out. Everyone brought their own cake and candles to the virtual celebration.
“It was a hoot!” he says.
“The Guinness World Record for a mass candle blow-out was 1,700 people, so we couldn’t compete,” Dr Whyte chuckled.
At the age of 100, Dr Whyte possesses the spirit and curiosity of someone a quarter of his age.
“I still do my own cooking. I like Asian food the most. Luckily, I still drive a car too, so I do get around a bit,” he says.
Born in India in 1920 to Australian Protestant missionaries, Dr Whyte’s calling to be a doctor was strong. He graduated from UQ as the top student with a university medal for outstanding academic performance and a Rhodes Scholarship.
Upon graduation he joined the Army and served in Borneo and the Celebes, before returning home to be a Senior Lecturer in Physiology at UQ. Then in 1947 he went with his wife and son to take up his Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford University, where he gained a PhD, won membership of the Royal College of Physicians and added a second child to his family.
In 1977, Dr Whyte had a calling. Just before his 40th birthday, his Sydney Hospital team were testing Australia’s first dialysis machine. Since people with kidney failure were too sick to be tested on, Dr Whyte used healthy volunteers who ate nothing, or half their normal food intake, to test kidney recovery optimisation. He was one of the volunteers.
“The technology was new so when people heard about it, we were flooded with requests from all over Australia from people with bad kidneys,” he says.
“The night after your intermittent starvation, you become hyperactive, and I had this epiphany that I needed to do more for my community.
“The next day I went to the Sydney City Mission and asked the superintendent if there was anything I could do. He said he’d been praying for a doctor, so I joined the board and helped them turn the soup kitchen into a rehabilitation service for homeless men. It was amazing.
“People these days have multiple careers, but it wasn’t so common back then. I had an itch to do something different.
“That night was a night of enlightenment that significantly changed the rest of my life.”
Dr Whyte’s new-found community focus saw him coordinate the Alcohol and Drug Dependence Unit within the ACT Health Commission, working closely with the Salvation Army, St Vincent de Paul Society, Alcoholics Anonymous, and Alanon.
From there he became a consultant to the Northern Territory Department of Health, and became active in the Red Cross Blood Bank, the Commonwealth Rehabilitation Service, the Canberra Marriage Counselling Service, Lifeline Canberra, and the Ethics Committee of the Australian Institute of Health.
“One of my biggest achievements was setting up Lifeline. Now with the pandemic, Lifeline is promoted on television every night. It’s such an important service,” he says.
“Some people would say to me ‘oh geez, that must be incredibly sombre work,’ but we had so much fun seeing people recover and blossom.”
Reflecting on his career, Dr Whyte says the best part about his work has always been lifting others up.
“My gift is to help people shine,” he says.
“I loved what I did. That’s so important.”
In retirement, Dr Whyte says he’s having the time of his life. As a Quaker, he enjoys pondering philosophy, cosmology, history and spirituality in the form of poetry.
“I like to write ‘selfies’, which are introspective pieces of writing, just for myself, like this one:
I have lived my whole life learning how to live. As a slow learner I need a very long life. My studentship is by no means finished.
“On that note, I’m looking forward to the next birthday!” he says.
Our sincere thanks to Christine Moore for providing the accompanying images.