Humanity’s heroes (published in London Forever Young 20th anniversary edition)
A London organization honours Canada’s rich heritage in medicine and health sciences
Janet Tufts (left) executive director of the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame and Carol King (Ellen Ashton-Haiste photo)
By Ellen Ashton-Haiste
Practising medicine in the early days of the 20th century at the Montreal Neurological Institute which he helped to establish, Dr. Wilder Graves Penfield, pre-eminent scientist and surgeon, made major breakthroughs in the understanding and treatment of epilepsy and brain scars from trauma.
More than half a century later, London neurosurgeon Dr. Charles Drake made history and became internationally renowned for perfecting surgical techniques to repair ruptured brain aneurysms.
Though generations apart in age, these two men of medicine were brought together in 1994 as inaugural inductees to the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame (CMHF) in London, sharing that figurative stage with eight other medical icons, including Maude Elizabeth Seymour Abbott, one of the first Canadian women to practise medicine, and Drs. Frederick Banting, Charles Best and James Bertram Collip, known collectively for the discovery of insulin to treat diabetes.
Today those initial laureates are joined by 71 others — five more will be inducted in April — from pioneers like Sir William Osler, who literally wrote the book on how to bring a more human touch to clinical medicine, to modern-day heroes like Roberta Bondar, neurologist and the first Canadian woman to explore space aboard the 1992 space shuttle Discovery.
The Hall of Fame is the only organization in Canada — and as far as is known in the world, according to executive director Janet Tufts — dedicated to recognizing the country’s rich medical history and contributions to health and wellbeing around the globe.
It was the brainchild of London surgeon Dr. Cal Stiller and John Winston, then city economic development officer. It’s mission was to foster “pride of country,” founding chairman, the late J. Allyn Taylor, told Today’s Seniors in a January 1996 article.
“I feel strongly that Canada doesn’t do enough to promote the reasons it has to be proud,” said Taylor, a prominent city businessman and supporter of community causes.
Second-year inductee Dr. Robert Salter, an orthopaedic surgeon at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children and a leader and innovator in that field, called it “an excellent idea. It emphasizes some of the really positive aspects of medicine in this country; there have been — and still are — important leaders in this field.”
Initially located at the University of Western Ontario in space provided by Robarts Research Institute, the Hall opened its first portrait gallery in Museum London in 1996, honouring its then-17 laureates. Since 2003, it’s been housed in the historic former Canada Trust-Toronto Dominion Bank building on the corner of Dundas and Wellington streets, now, somewhat ironically, named the J. Allyn Taylor Building.
Over the years, it has grown not only in honourees but in scope and philosophy as well, says executive director Tufts.
“Our mandate is now really two-pronged: to recognize and honour the Canada’s medical accomplishments through the laureates, and to educate and inspire young people.”
The latter is accomplished in several ways. In 1997, the CMHF initiated Discovery Days in Health Sciences, a program for secondary school students offered at universities across the country. Started at UWO, in 2008 it was held at eight universities and a ninth will be added in 2009. The Hall of Fame also awards up to two four-year undergraduate scholarships annually. And, since 2004 it has partnered with four other London museums and local school boards to offer a week-long Museum School for senior elementary students.
But, for the thousands of visitors to the museum and its website, cdnmedhall.org — which Tufts says gets “an enormous amount of traffic” — the focus is still the heroes of medicine.
Up to a half dozen are inducted each year to 18 months, chosen by a committee of prominent health professionals for “achieved excellence and the global impact of their work,” Tufts says. “It might be for one discovery with long-lasting effect or for a lifetime of achievements but they represent the cream of the crop.”
The 2009 inductees were chosen from a field of 71 nominations.
This year’s induction ceremony will be held April 29, at the Hilton Bonaventure in Montreal, its first time in Quebec, which Tufts says is creating immense excitement in that province which is “fiercely proud” of its medical history. And with good reason, she adds. “That province has a medical record that is second to none. Thirty of our 71 laureates have a Quebec connection.”
2009 Canadian Hall of Fame Inductees
• Dr. Sylvia O. Fedoruk — a medical biophysicist and the only woman conducting medical-physics research in Canada 60 years ago; one of four inventors of the “Cobalt Bomb,” the world’s first radiation machine used to treat cancer.
• Dr. Tak Wah Mak — currently director of the Campbell Family Institute for Breast Cancer Research at Toronto’s Princess Margaret Hospital; a major figure in molecular biology who, in 1984, solved one of the toughest immunology problems: the structure of T Cell receptor for antigens.
• Dr. Ronald Meizack — for almost half a century dedicated to understanding and treating pain, he developed a theory that led to an explosion in pain research; co-founder of the country’s first pain clinics in Montreal.
• Dr. Charles H. Tator — founder of Thinkfirst Canada, a national brain and spinal chord injury foundation; has had a resounding impact on spinal chord injury research, clinical treatment and prevention.
• Dr. Mladen Vranic — recognized as a global leader in diabetes research, invited by Dr. Charles Best, co-founder of insulin, to come to the University of Toronto as a post-doctoral fellow.