History of Medicine

Remembering Dr. Donald Wilson

This guest blog post, remembering the late Dr. Donald Wilson, was written by Dr. William E. Seidelman with the assistance of Drs. Richard Reznick, Tirone David, Chris Feindel, Bryce Taylor and Ron Baird.  Their assistance in documenting Dr. Wilson’s participation in the first heart transplant performed in Toronto at the Toronto Western Hospital was invaluable. Please share your fond memories of Dr. Wilson with us in the comments section. 

Sometime in 1988, the Board of Directors of AMS held a “retreat” at the Guild Inn in Scarborough, Ontario.  It was a wet and cold day.  The meeting was held in a relatively small room in the basement of the aging inn on the Scarborough Bluffs.  The “retreat” had been called by Don Wilson in his capacity as President and CEO of the corporation to consider a plan for the future.

Heretofore, AMS had gone through two major stages: The first was that of a pioneering, physician-sponsored, not-for-profit, prepaid health care organization in Ontario; the first in Canada.  The second iteration began when the Province of Ontario joined the Federal Medicare Program and responsibilities for prepaid health care services were assumed by the Ontario provincial plan.  AMS transitioned from being a health care provider to becoming a charitable organization financed by the monies accumulated in the reserve fund required to secure its activities as a health insurer.  Influenced by the advice of Dr. William Gibson of the University of British Columbia; a noted advocate for the history of medicine, AMS established major initiatives in medical history eponymously named in honor of its founder, Dr. Jason Hannah.  These initiatives included; a collection of valuable classical publications in medical history to be known as the Hannah Collection in the Fisher Memorial Library of the University of Toronto; Jason Hannah Chairs in the History of Medicine to be established in each of the then 5 medical faculties in Ontario: Ottawa, Western Ontario, Toronto, Queens and McMaster; and an administrative office known as the Hannah Institute which, under the leadership of an Executive Director, would have administrative responsibility over the activities related to medical history including grants, projects and, together with the medical faculties, review and employment of the Hannah Professors holding a designated chair.  AMS continued as the “holding company”, so to speak.

The Guild Inn event, under the leadership of Don Wilson, marked the beginning of a significant transformational phase in the corporate life of AMS.

A native of Saskatchewan, Donald Richards Wilson was the son of a teacher.  His grandfather had been a minister.  Don would often jokingly comment that his preacher-grandfather, when he assumed a new parish, would often have the church given a fresh coat of paint.  At the Guild Inn we were planning the next coat of paint for the “parish” of AMS.

The members of the Board at that time included; Mr. Jack Sword who had been a senior administrator and one-time Acting President of the University of Toronto; Dr. John Scott, a distinguished Toronto neurologist and leader of the Toronto Academy of Medicine; Ms. Ray Godfrey, a leading child-care advocate in Ontario; Dr. Boyd Upper,  physician, administrator and executive with MDS who had been the AMS Chief Medical Officer; Dr. Robert MacBeth, surgeon and head of the Canadian Cancer Society; Prof. Abyann Lynch PhD, internationally noted philosopher and pioneering leader in bioethics and me, a family physician, then at McMaster University.

The trajectory of Don Wilson’s life after Saskatoon included the Canadian military, the University of Toronto and the Toronto Western Hospital, and ultimately, Professor and Head of Surgery at the University of Toronto.  Don’s clinical path was that of a pioneering cardio-thoracic surgeon who was a member of the team, including Drs. Ron Baird and Bob Miyagishima who performed the first ever heart transplant in Toronto at the Toronto Western Hospital.

In addition to the love of his family, the University and AMS, Don’s great passion was the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada.  As president of that organization, Don was involved in the acquisition and renovation of a magnificent old convent in Ottawa that became the elegant headquarter offices of the Royal College in which were also located the offices of, what was then known as, the Association of Canadian Medical Colleges.

But Donald Wilson’s overriding concern was that of education in health care.

The year before the AMS Board met in Scarborough, the province of Ontario had experienced a strike by the provinces’ physicians over the issue of extra-billing.  The unsuccessful work stoppage had a damaging impact on the relationship between the professional medical community and the population at large.  Don Wilson was deeply concerned about the apparent diathesis between the profession and the community.  As a committed educator and sensitive individual, he felt that AMS should undertake an educational project that attempted to close the gap and bring the profession closer to the community it served.  He also felt strongly that such an effort should be a collaborative one involving all of the faculties of medicine of the province who would have to share financial and professional resources.  Leaders in education were brought together; from the local faculties, from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, from across the country.  Dr. John Evans, then with the Rockefeller Foundation, was consulted.  A special retreat was held in May of 1989 under the chairmanship of Dr. Evans  at which provincial and national leaders in medical education, together with representatives of the (Pew/Rockefeller) Health of the Public Project in the United States and the Negev Project in Israel, met to flesh out the vision for the AMS project.  That meeting took place at the Sutton Place Hotel in Toronto in May of 1989, at the same time as people were assembling in Beijing in a huge protest in Tienamin Square.

Out of the Sutton Place event emerged the Project Educating Future Physicians for Ontario; a project that has had an enduring effect nationally and internationally and reported on in detail elsewhere.  One major innovation proposed by an EFPO leader, the late Dr. Bob Maudsley of Queen’s University, was that of the EFPO Fellowships; faculty and student.  One of the first EFPO fellows was Dr. Brian Hodges; now the leader of the AMS Phoenix Program.

A major financial contributor to EFPO was the Government of Ontario with the Council of the Ontario Faculties of Medicine (COFM) a critical partner in the implementation and monitoring of the overall effort.

An illustrative aspect of the humility and sensitivity of Don Wilson is exemplified by an encounter in the early days of the EFPO undertaking.  In our attempts to engage the project with the community I introduced Don to Joan Milling, the then Executive Director of York Community Services, an innovative community health centre on Keele St. in Toronto; in a quasi-industrial, multi-ethnic, working-class neighborhood.  As the conversation got underway it became apparent that Don had made a point of coming earlier and spent some time at the coffee shop across the street talking with regulars from the neighborhood who came there every day for coffee.  Don had already done his own community survey.  Not bad for a cardio-thoracic surgeon and former president of the Royal College!

EFPO was not the only color of paint chosen for the AMS “parish” at the Guild Inn.  Don proposed that AMS publish a series of biographies of important Canadian figures in the history of health care in Canada known as “Canadian Medical Lives” which was edited by the retired neurosurgeon, Dr. Tom Morley.

Don  also proposed, and the Board accepted, that AMS support an initiative in bioethics education in Canada under the leadership of AMS Board member, and pioneer in bioethics, Prof. Abbyann Lynch.  Thus was launched two influential initiatives at Dalhousie University and the Hospital for Sick Children.

The Wilson era continued with additional efforts.  Don was recognized for his contribution not only by AMS and the Royal College but also by the establishment of the eponymously named centre for medical education of the University (Toronto) Health Network.

While the path was not without its bumps and stresses,  thanks to the vision, wisdom and esteem of Donald Wilson, in concert with the support of AMS, the education of health professionals in Canada underwent a profound change that continues to this very day.

After a life that spanned a century  encompassing significant contributions to the lives, health care and education of untold generations of Canadians,  Dr. Donald Richards Wilson, formerly of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, leaves a distinguished immortal legacy.


William E. Seidelman, MD
AMS President/CEO: 2002-2007.
January 18, 2017.
Beer-Sheva, Israel.


I wish to express my appreciation to Drs. Richard Reznick, Tirone David, Chris Feindel, Bryce Taylor and Ron Baird for their assistance in documenting DonWilson’s participation in the first heart transplant performed in Toronto at the Toronto Western Hospital.

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