Iowa State Memorial Union

Donald Scott Wilkins - Captain

Rank: Captain
Date Of Birth: : May 20, 1922
Date Of Death: Oct 5, 1950
War / Conflict: Korea
Hometown: Erie, Pennsylvania
Gold Star Hall - Wall Location: Northwest Corner (by Entrance Door)
Class Year: 1946
Service Branch: US Army
ISU Major: B.S. Sci. Maj. Bact.


Died: Aboard Hospital Ship

Donald Scott Wilkins was born in Ames on May 20th, 1922, to Eleanor and Franklin Scott Wilkins. Growing up, he was an older brother to his only sibling, his sister Joanne. Don’s grandfather helped build Saint John’s episcopal church just across the street from the Memorial Union. Don was a faithful person serving as an acolyte at Saint John’s right up until he was deployed to Korea in 1950. Don’s father was on the faculty at Iowa State College and was an expert on soybean production and a research professor in forage crops.

 Don was a careful and precise person; he won a prize for being the safest driver in his drivers ed class for being the only person to drive the course with a glass milk jug standing up in the back seat. He was always known as the brainy kid. When he was younger Don won an intelligence contest that won him an engraved watch and a trip for two to attend the 1939 the New York World’s Fair with his mother. He was thought of as “super smart and a hard worker” by others. Don aspired to be a medical doctor and all these traits would eventually make Don a terrific practitioner.

Don’s father, Franklin, died in 1936 when Don was 14 and his mother worked to support herself and her two children. She was college-educated with a degree in Home Economics Education and was recruited by WOI radio in 1939 to host a show called the "Homemaker's Half Hour." It was said to have been the earliest women’s radio program in the Midwest. Eleanor became a famous local radio and TV personality on WOI, known by her on-air name, “Martha Duncan.”

Don graduated from Ames High School in 1940 and attended Iowa State College where he earned his pre-med degree in 1946. While at Iowa State, he was a member of the Reserve Officers Training Corps – ROTC. It’s possible that since his mother was the sole support of the family, that Don was in ROTC to get the financial help he needed to go to college and then medical school.  Due to his strong academics, Don was the first person in the US to receive a military scholarship to go to medical school. He attended the University of Iowa where he received his degree in anesthesiology in 1947.

While stationed at an Army base near Boston on Reserves duty, Don met the woman who would become his wife, Shirley Needham.  They met at a USO dance when she was working at a club in Boston, living with an aunt after her parents died. Interestingly, she was the granddaughter of Louis Pammel, Iowa State’s noted botanist. Shirley was a bright girl, having been valedictorian of her high school class – possibly one of the reasons she and Don connected. While Don was a bright guy, he was an awful dancer! At the dance where Don and Shirley met, he stepped on Shirley’s feet many times, which he made up for by being very kind, smart, and sweet. Shirley and Don were married on June 29th, 1946, in Boston, Massachusetts.

While earning his degree at the University of Iowa Don authored several articles on his anesthesiology findings cooperating with the statistical department of Iowa State College. The University of Iowa’s department of Anesthesiology named their library in his honor. Don was the first person in the US to receive a military scholarship to go to medical school. He completed his residency in 1947 and 48 at Pennsylvania hospital in Philadelphia. After finishing his residency Don moved to Battle Creek, Michigan where he worked at the Percy Jones Army hospital before the onset of the Korean war.

Don left his then pregnant wife, Shirley, for Korea in early autumn of 1950. He was obligated to go under the terms of his medical scholarship. Don served as a captain in a MASH unit as an anesthesiologist. His first job responsibility was being responsible for putting polio patients in iron lungs on a hospital ship. Don quickly contracted polio and became a patient on the very ship which he was working. Don died of polio on October 6th, 1950. On the day that his wife and mother were notified of his death, in the mail they received a letter from Don, explaining his illness and trying to reassure them by saying that he was receiving the finest treatment available. He was in Korea for only two months and died a year before the polio vaccine was introduced. Don is buried here at the Iowa State University cemetery. The baby that Shirley was carrying when Don died – and who he was never to meet – was a son, Scott.

Don is buried here at the Iowa State University cemetery in a plot with his parents and his sister. Each year, around Memorial Day staff at the Memorial Union has witnessed a wreath placed in front of Donald’s name in Gold Star Hall. Don’s sister Joanne started doing the wreath along with graveside flowers long ago. Don’s niece, Kim Borman, continued after her mother’s passing in 1997 and has faithfully remembered Don year after year – and the wreath is what prompted us to honor Donald Wilkins this year.

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