Jacalyn Duffin – A Scandalously Short Profile

In Profiles by Steve Palmer0 Comments


One evening not long ago, at about the time I started thinking about how to write a profile of Jackie Duffin, I was half listening to As It Happens on the car radio. The perplexing issue of widespread and persistent drug shortages in major Canadian healthcare establishments was in the news, and the host called up the leading expert on the topic, the sponsor of a site that tracks drug shortages in Canadian healthcare establishments, Hannah Chair in the History of Medicine at Queen’s University … Jacalyn Duffin!

True to form, Duffin gave a strong, articulate and sensible interview on the dimensions of the problem, and made clear that it’s a significant public policy issue that Canadians need to engage.

What the hell?! How does she do it?

The unspoken context of Duffin’s CBC interview was significant in another way. Only a week earlier Queen’s University had been ignominiously associated with the anti-vaccination subculture responsible for a major North American outbreak of measles.  The connection, whipped up by the media, had to do with accusations that inaccurate information about the possible perils of vaccines was being taught in a Human Kinetics course at the university.  Without her addressing that issue directly, I thought to myself, Duffin’s interview was restoring the reputation of Queen’s as a serious school of health science, informed health culture and publicly-minded health activism.

A few weeks later, Geoff Hudson, the historian of medicine at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine was giving me a tour of Thunder Bay. Inevitably, the topic of Terry Fox came up, since the place is now a monument to his great philanthropic marathon for cancer research that came to a tragic end on a stretch of the Trans-Canada just west of the city. “Guess who the oncologist was who attended Terry Fox in Thunder Bay?” By this time I shouldn’t have been surprised to find that it was Jackie Duffin. We agreed that this degree of omnipresence and historical protagonism was not fair to mere mortal historians of medicine.

Joking aside, when you meet her and see her in action, there is no one more mortal than Jacalyn Duffin, who is a very definite human being with a great sense of humour and fun. Also evidence of her humanity, she is a spectacular eclectic whose will to evade ghettoization she credits to her mentor, Mirko Grmek. Her work, of exquisite quality, ranges from a high-tone history of science monograph on Laennec and the invention of the stethoscope that broaches the classic terrain of the Paris hospital, to an erudite trans-historical study of the question of medical miracles, to a richly detailed social history of the practice of nineteenth-century Ontario country doctor, James Langstaff, to a contemplation of the way that history of medicine can and has informed the work of clinicians. All this to say nothing of her scandalously long Scandalously Short Introduction to the History of Medicine, a lively, politically engaged, prickly, cheerleading, progressive, practical and often philosophical textbook for use with senior undergraduates and Med students.

Then there’s her history of the role of historian of medicine Henry Sigerist in the making of a publicly funded healthcare system in Saskatchewan. And her work on changes in medical school tuition in Canada since the mid 19th century. The question of women in medicine and its relationship to feminist thought and action? That too. The exclusion of minorities from medical schools and the question of racial quotas? Also. The medical art of Parke Davis? No way! The history of tartar emetic? Give me a break!!  But there’s more — much more: read it and weep, fellow historians of medicine (or more likely laugh in disbelief, then read in wonder):


And these are not squibs dashed off for the sidebar of a newsletter. These are monographs or journal articles based on primary research and published in the premier venues of our professional craft.

On top of her incredible scholarship and au courant public policy engagement, Duffin is a consummate associationist. She has long been a beating heart of the Canadian Society for the History of Medicine – she’s been President, co-written its history (with Paul Potter), advocated to get medical accreditation for its conferences to keep professional historians in touch with the practitioner community and vice versa, hosts an annual champagne and strawberries book celebration for recent authors at the congress, and has no doubt shouldered lots of other nitty gritty unsung Canadian association slogging and wrangling that I’m not privy to.

Classically Canuck, like many of us she’s lived a parallel networking life flying under the radar of foreignness in the American Association for the History of Medicine, the Yankee-with-global-horizons society that is the biggest and most prestigious of our trade, and served as its president for good measure. Warrior for the discipline on these terms, she’s also been a flag-bearer and advocate for the Hannah Chairs in the History of Medicine, a rare Canadian example of endowed chairs – in this case, in Ontario universities with medical schools, and devoted to teaching history of medicine to those who will practice it, while furthering the wider cause of history of medicine and health.

Besides being a strong activist thinker, Duffin is heir to the great Canadian clinician and medical educator, Sir William Osler, in being a superb teacher and an innovative thinker about teaching – in particular about how to overcome the difficulties of teaching history to medical students who, for the most part, don’t have much time for it. Her Scandalously Short History of Medicine developed out of her experience of teaching history to medical students and for teaching them history more effectively.  The book nicely shows that the origins of our discipline, before social history, did not become petrified (as many social historians of medicine believe).  It is both a testament to how social and political and concerned with larger issues of health the history of medicine has become, and a demonstration that the med-school tradition of HM can and has evolved to encompass the more critical, socially aware and historiographical edge of the new kids on the HM block without abandoning a series of particular, perhaps more technical and in-house questions that are no less fascinating and important to “outsiders” for all that.

Duffin has also raised this issue to the level of research, most intriguingly in her edited book, Clio in the Clinic, where a wide variety of practitioners (including Duffin), most of them also professional historians, reflect on the different ways that their expertise in medical history has enhanced their doctoring. In many cases, she proposes, historically informed medicine is better medicine.

Having just finished a great seminar experience that had the Scandalously Short History as its bed reference text, I am also delighted to note that Duffin unapologetically studs her internationally lauded and adopted general history with a great many Canadian examples. The fact that the rest of the world has no trouble accepting the legitimacy of these examples for general illustrative purposes (the U of T Press paperback is now in its 2nd edition) should make us realize, if we haven’t already, that framed in the right way there is nothing parochial about Canada’s medical history and much that is potentially definitive and worthy of mention in a global forum.

Professor Duffin is also a notoriously fine teacher. She was a finalist in TVO’s 2007 Best Lecturer competition (a video of Duffin in teaching mode is  http://tvo.org/guest/180875/Jacalyn%20Duffin) and when you see her in a public speaking role you can easily tell why. I’ve had a couple of occasions to hear her give a talk and each one has been a treat. Witty, charming, clear as a bell, she’s a teacher who makes the learning of her subject matter effortless and enjoyable, challenging and profound.

As a keynote speaker at the Utrecht conference of the European Association for the History of Medicine and Health in the fall of 2011, Duffin addressed the particular issues that arise from teaching history to medical students with an evening talk that was able to enchant conference- and travel-weary delegates. She began with a series of maps and pictures to let us know where she was coming from: a ramshackle house serving as her HM HQ that sits somewhat precariously beside the new medical school building on the campus of Queen’s University, Kingston, Lake Ontario, Canada, the world.

Of course she presented the pictures in the opposite sequence, bringing the audience right into her very situated office parlour where, a few months later, I would have the pleasure to sit myself and sip tea that she’d made beside heaps of books and filing cabinets spilling papers while listening to her tell us about medical miracles and graduate programs. Was there also a cat asleep on a chair? Then, late on a wintry Friday afternoon, she took me down to hear her students present papers at a conference they’d organized.

Recently we spoke on the phone about doing history of medicine in Canada and whether it makes any difference to the way one approaches scholarship that is essentially global and universal. She talked about public accountability and how research topics come from that, and about a particularly Canadian way of doing medicine that means that as historians of medicine in Canada we should be responsible and available to the community. She reflected on the importance of knowing the story of our own evolution within a particular configuration of public institutions, and about the way that the peculiarities of Canada as a nation-state mean that its historians have certain networking needs, especially given the size of the country, and how the CSHM acts as a kind of glue for bringing people together.

Though she was late for an appointment, Jackie talked about all the fine historians of medicine this country has produced, in the francophone scholarly tradition centred in Québec where the Societé canadienne d’histoire de la medicine had its beginnings, and in the great anglophone rest. She named at least twenty names, and briefly glossed the importance of the work of each one, from the late Charles Roland, a founder of the American Osler Society and internationally known for his work on Japanese internment camps, to a long list of the exciting new scholars who’ve shown how bright the future is for the history of medicine and health in Canada.

As far as I was concerned, the conversation could have gone on forever. And I think for Jacalyn Duffin the conversation about history of medicine does and should go on forever, in professional medical and in professional historical and in expert policy and, above all, in Canadian public settings, for the betterment of humankind.

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