UBC Faculty of Medicine at 70
May 18th, 2021
Review by George Szasz CM, MD
Dreamers, Skeptics and Healers: The Story of BC’s Medical School by Wendy Cairns, John Cairns, David Ostrow and Gavin Stuart (Page Two Books $50)
I arrived in Vancouver in 1947 as an 18-year-old immigrant with full hopes that I would enter medical school here.
I learned with considerable anxiety that there was no medical school in B.C. and that the likelihood of one opening soon was not very good. Only four years later I was in UBC Medicine’s second graduating class, still located in former army barracks.
Skeptics were abundant from before the school opened. Throughout many of its early years, it was the dedicated deans, scientists and healing practitioners who brought the dreams into reality.
Now well-established and celebrating its 70th anniversary, its history is told in Dreamers, Skeptics and Healers: The Story of BC’s Medical School.
The mastermind behind writing the story was Wendy Elizabeth Cairns. After her premature death in 2018, her husband and former Dean of the Medical School, John Cairns along with David Ostrow and Gavin Stuart (another former Dean) took up their pens to expand and complete Wendy’s rich material and finish the book.
The title accurately reflects the history of the medical school that admitted its first class after years of controversy in 1950 to become by 2021 one of the largest and among the five or six most respected medical schools in North America.
It’s a handsome, easy-to-read book of about 200 pages with wonderful, often youthful pictures of many of the doctors, healers, scientists and administrators who made the school what it is today. It is divided into seven parts starting with “Setting the Scene” with Dr. John Sebastian Helmke’s ideas in 1870 for a health service for a then-fledgling population; and ending in 1949, when Dr Myron Weaver, the first dean opened its doors. The book ends on a celebratory note in “A first class Medical School” section in which the authors laud the research and innovation that has taken place over 70 years and the ideas put forward for the future.
The middle sections recall how the school took off after years of arguments and disappointments, the unavoidable growing pains and finally coming into a respected early maturity. After a number of unexpected turnarounds, the UBC Medical School has become world famous — one that started with 60 students per graduating class and now teaches 240 students per class who are learning the arts and sciences of medicine in almost every district of B.C.
Reading the various parts of this book I had a feeling of reliving my student days all over again as I came to the sections about Dr. Kerr and Dr. Walters conducting oral exams at the bed-side; how Dr. Friedman, the head and professor of Anatomy made diagrams on the blackboard with two hands at the same time; and Dr. William Boyd, head and professor of pathology entertaining students (including me) with his witty lectures.
The vision and the legacy of each of the deans over seven decades is sensitively explained. Some of these early leaders had visions that came alive, while others did not. For example, Dean McCeary’s vision of the model “if they learn together, they will work together” teaching program for all health professionals, leading them toward integrated patient care by health sciences teams, is still not a reality.
Each part introduces the leading figures in the various science and clinical faculties. The pictures of Dr. Copp of physiology, Dr. Bryans of obstetrics and gynecology or Dr. Herbert of family practice and many others will evoke warm memories in former students.
And of course, the politics. I was at the tense, locked-door meeting described in the book with university administration and Dr. Pat McGeer, a graduate of the school, accomplished neuroscientist, UBC faculty member and B.C.’s Minister of Education at the time. McGeer issued an ultimatum — come up with a plan for increasing medical student numbers and a plan for a campus hospital or lose an unclaimed federal fund about to be closed off. Student numbers were increased.
The book will rekindle memories and bring some understanding to non-medical readers of the extreme complexity of gathering and maintaining the enthusiasm of dedicated practitioners, scientists and students of medicine and other health related professions with the goal of understanding nature and serving mankind. 978-1-989603-89-5
This book review was published in the June 2021 issue of the BC Medical Journal [2021; Vol. 63; No. 5; Pages 201 – 202].