Canada’s Greatest Healer? A few more nominations from the conference floor

In Canada's Greatest Healer, Conferences, Health Activism, History of medicine, Hospitals, Psychiatry by Steve Palmer2 Comments

Well, we definitely didn’t get anywhere with our frivolous Twitter contest to get historians of medicine and nursing to nominate and choose “Canada’s Greatest Healer”.  Not a single nomination from anyone outside the inner circle of three involved in the production of this blog site.  But the appearance of my nominee, Norman Bethune, in the cool “academic card packs” that were given out at Congress, made me realize that a few potential candidates were being nominated, intentionally or not, in the conference papers.  So by way of blogging a bit more of the event, let me add them to the nomination list on behalf of the presenters who I’m sure would have tweeted about it if they’d had the chance.


A knowledge mobilizer who thinked different, undertook successful research partnerships with private enterprise and international Communism, and had impressive productivity indicators.

I’ve already mentioned Christine Hallett’s rescue of Agnes Warner from oblivion.  The highly educated nurse, originally from St. John, played a pioneering role in military nursing in a famous mobile surgical hospital on WW I’s Western front.  Her letters home were collected and published in 1916, the book becoming a huge wartime success, and she was decorated with the Croix de Guerre.

How about Jonathan Reinarz’s shout out for Thomas McKeown, whose classic demographer’s debunking of the myth of modern medicine’s triumph over disease and mortality continues to reverberate in high-level discussions of the social determinants of health and the value of technology-based, magic bullet approaches to global well being?  I didn’t even know he had a Canadian connection, let alone that he was a graduate of my alma mater, UBC, prior to getting a PhD at McGill and pursuing his research career in the UK, ending at Reinharz’s University of Birmingham.

And then there was Alexandre Klein’s talk on the forgotten figure of Charles A. Roberts, who played such an important role in the de-institutionalization of psychiatry in Quebec, and was the anglophone member of the commission that produced the policy document that organized and drove it, the Bédard Report.

A nice couple of coincidences here with my own biography, as Roberts was originally from Newfoundland, which I have a strong connection to (partly grew up there, partly had a career in the arts there, folks still live there), though I have to say I’ve never heard anyone mention Roberts’ name there.  In the Montreal anglophone world of high-powered psychiatric research he was overshadowed by the star qualities of Heinz Lehmann, and Ewen Cameron (now infamous for his atrocious CIA-funded brainwashing experiments in the city’s Allan Memorial Institute — Canada’s worst ever healer?).

Also, my close friend and departmental colleague at Windsor, the excellent early modern historian of the book, Guy Lazure is the nephew of Roberts’ fellow commissioner, Quebec psychiatrist, Denis Lazure.  Lazure was a leading progressive reformer in the field and went on to hold the crucial Minister of Social Affairs post in the first government of René Levesque back when the Parti Québecois were social democrats and democratic socialists (Lazure had run federally with great, though not ultimate, success as an NDP candidate in Outremont prior to being elected provincially).  So let’s throw Denis Lazure’s hat in the ring while we’re at it.

But if I had to choose a “greatest healer” among those Canadians I heard about at this joint conference (and I saw less than a quarter of the presentations, so I’m surely missing some other possibilities), I would have to vote for Lanny Beckman.  Beckman was a leader in the founding of the Mental Patients Association who fought a radically progressive and pioneering fight for better treatment and better rights for the mentally ill in Vancouver in the early 1970s.  This “group that was really being run by ‘crazy’ people”, as Beckman is quoted on the MPA’s homepage, was at the heart of Megan Davies’ and Chris Dooley’s moving and inspirational papers on the “After the Asylum” project that has mapped out and enacted an epic but very human way to do collaborative, community-based and community-making history of exceptional beauty, not to mention state-of-the-art usability.

On the MPA, which is still doing amazing work supporting mental health, visit:

On the “After the Asylum” project, visit the innovative website:

For an interview with Davies on the project, and the film, The Inmates are Running the Asylum, that is one of the many results of this research collaboration which I hope to blog about some more:


We’re still open for nominations.  Just tweet with the hashtag #CanadasGreatestHealer


  1. Pingback: Conference Reflections | A Canadian Treasury of Medical History

  2. It’s too bad that this “contest” has gained so little traction; there could definitely be all kinds of lively debate on this question.
    The Academic Card Pack item seems to be part of the Council of Ontario University’s current initiative and site, which invites viewers to vote on 50 breakthroughs new and old, many of them medical.

    There could easily be a battle royal over the sheer idea of Norman Bethune as “Canada’s Greatest Healer”, though he would be my choice as well.

    Quite apart from the dubious grammar on the card (“Thinked DIfferent?”) some observers are still aghast at his associations with international communism and /or his reputation for irascibility and wild behaviour. It would be interesting to see where he would land on the Greatest vs Worst/Most Over-Rated scale nowadays.

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