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Visionaries and Pioneers

The history of cancer control in Ontario is filled with stories of exceptional men and women whose work has, in one way or another, influenced the course of cancer care in the province or even the world.

To honour the innovative spirit of these exceptional individuals, we shine a spotlight on six trailblazers who have done so much to advance cancer control in Ontario. We owe them, and all the other leaders in cancer care, a debt of gratitude.

Click on any of the photos below to learn more about these six trailblazers in cancer care.

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Henry John Cody - A Lasting Influence on Cancer Control in Ontario

Henry John Cody had very little experience in health care. Yet his influence on cancer care in Ontario is still being felt nearly 60 years after his death. In fact, it was one of the recommendations from the Cody Commission that led to the creation of the Ontario Cancer Treatment and Research Foundation, now known as Cancer Care Ontario.

[ 1868–1951 ]

Henry John Cody was one of the most prominent and accomplished Canadians of his time. He was a highly respected Anglican cleric at St. Paul's Church in Toronto and a noted academic who taught theology at Wycliff College. He went on to become President and later Chancellor of the University of Toronto. He also served as Ontario's Minister of Education under the William Howard Hearst administration in 1918, and during that short stint was responsible for raising the mandatory school age in Ontario to 16 years.

Cody was very well connected politically and was friends with two of the province's other Conservative premiers, G. Howard Ferguson and George S. Henry. But until 1931, when the Ontario government asked him to lead a Royal Commission on the organization of cancer services in the province, his only real connection to health care was when he served on the Board of Trustees at Toronto General Hospital.

Changing the course of cancer care through the Cody Commission

The 1931 Royal Commission on the Use of Radium and X-Rays in the Treatment of the Sick, etc. is today remembered as the Cody Commission. In addition to Cody, the Commission consisted of: Sir John McLennan, Professor of Physics, University of Toronto; Dr. W. T. Connell, Professor of Medicine, Queen's University; and Arthur Ford, Editor of the London Free Press. The Commission was established with a broad mandate as "a fact finding body to survey the province… estimate the existing problem" and make recommendations.

The Commission was originally struck in response to a shortage of radium in Ontario. There was, in the early 1930s, a growing appreciation and understanding of the value of radiation as an effective cancer therapy, either alone or in connection with surgery. There was little provincial coordination or organization of radiation treatment facilities, however, and no plan whatsoever to purchase and distribute the radium that was required for this increasingly popular therapy.

Laying a foundation for today's cancer system

What the Cody Commission accomplished over the next eight months is remarkable. Long-distance passenger flights were back then still a dream, and yet Cody and his colleagues managed to visit cancer centres and consult with experts in other parts of Canada, the United States, Great Britain, France, Belgium, Germany, Sweden and Denmark, all on a travel budget of less than $15,000.

If the geographical range of Cody's Commission was impressive, so too was the scope of its inquiries and the breadth of his report. The commissioners collected available statistics on cancer mortality in Canada and 23 other countries, and examined the areas of radiotherapy, the nature and causation of cancer, and the importance of recognizing precancerous conditions. The report contained sections on surgery, results of treatment, research in cancer, education of both the public and physicians, and the importance of social services.

None of this would be remarkable in a report on cancer commissioned today. More than 75 years ago, however, it was groundbreaking stuff – groundbreaking and, as it turned out, foundation-laying. The Cody Commission's recommendations helped create a framework for cancer care in this province that exists to this day.

Seeding the idea for the creation of what is now Cancer Care Ontario

Among other things, the Commission confirmed the importance of radiation as a therapy, and recommended both that the province purchase a satisfactory quantity of radium and that cancer clinics be created in association with the three medical schools that existed then in Toronto, London and Kingston. These recommendations were accepted, but because of the size of the province, four others were also established: one each in Windsor and Hamilton, and two in Ottawa.

In addition, Cody called for the creation of research laboratories for the study of cancer. He also called for public education on the prevention of cancer and better education for clinicians in the fields of diagnosis and therapy. His commission also highlighted the importance of closely linking all health care sectors and services. It was one of the earliest calls for something that is now taken for granted: interdisciplinary care.

Cody made two other recommendations, both of which still reverberate today. He called for a cancer institute that would combine diagnosis and treatment, research, teaching, and public health. That would culminate, 26 years later, in the opening of the Princess Margaret Hospital in the Ontario Cancer Institute in 1958. He also called for a body that would be responsible for the control and distribution of radium, and the inauguration and supervision of active treatment centres and diagnostic clinics. This recommendation led to the formation of the Ontario Cancer Treatment and Research Foundation in 1943, a body that evolved into Cancer Care Ontario 54 years later.

Dr. Gordon E. Richards - Canada's Father of the Discipline of Radiation Therapy

The first managing director of the Ontario Cancer Treatment and Treatment Foundation – which later became Cancer Care Ontario – Dr. Gordon E. Richards played a pivotal role in recognizing, developing and organizing radiation therapy in Canada.

[ 1885–1949 ]

One of the most important health care discoveries of the early 20th century was the potential of radiation therapy in treating patients with cancer. Very soon after the discovery of X-rays in 1895 and radium in 1898, practitioners began to hear, and spread, stories about the almost magical effect of "rays" on cancerous tumours. In Canada, the first report of X-rays being used to treat cancer surfaced in 1902. Others quickly followed, and in 1910 a doctor named William H. B. Aikins opened the Radium Institute of Toronto. By 1924, when he died, Aikins claimed to have treated more than 3,000 patients.

This was a time of excitement in health care. Radiotherapy held genuine promise for the treatment of a disease that until then had all too often confounded doctors. The fact was, though, that the health care community understood much more about the potential of radiation than they did about the practice itself, and there was certainly too little understanding of the dangers involved. There was no particular oversight or regulation with respect to radiation therapy. Treatments were given in less-thanstandard fashion by surgeons and general practitioners. Incredibly, some physicians were known to carry radium sources in their pockets.

The dawn of change

It was at this time that a man named Gordon E. Richards arrived on the scene. The son of a Presbyterian Minister, Dr. Richards was born in Lyn, Ontario. His father died when he was four, and he was raised in the home of his grandmother. Originally destined for the ministry, Richards opted instead for a medical career, working his way through the University of Toronto Medical School. He was a driven and highly successful student, who was President of the Undergraduate Medical Executive in his final year, and graduated as the top student with the gold medal in 1908.

It is unclear when or how Dr. Richards developed any interest or expertise in radiology, but shortly after graduating, he joined Vancouver's St. Paul's Hospital as a radiologist. In 1917, he moved back to Ontario to lead the new X-ray department at Toronto General Hospital. Until his arrival, diagnostic radiology was performed by non-MD radiographers, with physicians and surgeons interpreting the film. Over strenuous objections from clinicians, Dr. Richards directed that trained radiologists should be the ones making those interpretations, as well as final decisions as to treatment of cancer patients with radiation.

A more organized approach to radiation therapy

Over the following years, Dr. Richards' department acquired higher voltage radiation machines and radium for the treatment of patients with cancer. These therapies were still being used by private practitioners outside formal institutions, but in Dr. Richards' time and in large part because of his influence, these began to give way to a more organized and academic approach to radiation therapy. By the mid-1930s, Dr. Richards and his department had gained a national and international reputation for the treatment of patients with cancer.

Although there were no formal training programs in radiotherapy at that time, Dr. Richards trained apprentices, including two notable figures: Dr. Vera Peters, who became Canada's best known and most honoured radiation oncologist through her work in Hodgkin's disease and breast cancer, and Dr. Clifford Ash, who followed Dr. Richards as Chief of Radiotherapy and later became Director of Princess Margaret Hospital.

A more effective use of facilities

Dr. Richards' contributions extended beyond radiation therapy to the broader issues surrounding cancer control, particularly in Ontario. He was one of the first to recognize that the treatment of cancer requires specialists working in specialized institutions. He was a strong proponent of centralizing radiation facilities, and he favoured linking these facilities to large hospitals "to make the most effective use of the facilities for frequent consultation with other specialty departments."

The union of The Toronto Hospital (later renamed the University Health Network) and Princess Margaret Hospital in 1997, bringing together all cancer treatment modalities, truly realized Dr. Richards' vision. Similarly, the more recent integration of Cancer Care Ontario's cancer centres with their host hospitals would surely have met with his enthusiastic approval.

A significant role in all key aspects of cancer control

Dr. Richards' influence in cancer control was not limited to Ontario. He helped form both the Canadian Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute of Canada, serving as the latter's president in 1947 and 1948. He was involved and played a key role in almost every significant national and provincial cancer control initiative that occurred in his lifetime.

Dr. Richards was known to have always been cordial with his patients, but it was said of him that he never learned how to play – rather, his life was directed wholly and completely to his work. That commitment probably played a part in ending his life. It is a sad irony that the man who did more than anyone to bring some order and regulation, not to mention safer practices, to radiation therapy in Canada died of a blood condition – almost certainly acute leukemia, and very likely the result of prolonged exposure to radiation. Dr. Richards was an extraordinary man, one who devoted his entire life to combating cancer.

Dr. William Boyd - A Renowned Teacher, Author, Orator and Advocate

Dr. William Boyd is well remembered for his virtuoso teaching, his writings, and his oratory. What is often forgotten, however, is his significant role in creating the National Cancer of Institute of Canada. A great debt is owed to William Boyd, the man with the silver tongue, the golden pen, and a brilliant vision for cancer research and control.

[ 1885–1979 ]

Dr. William Boyd has been described as "the outstanding teacher of pathology of his generation." His contributions were truly colossal – as pathology department chair in three Canadian medical schools over 35 years, and as the author of textbooks that were used for more than 60 years, an extraordinary lifespan in that field. He was famous in his day for the quality of both his writing and his oratory, described by his biographer as having a "silver tongue and a golden pen."

He is not as well remembered, though he should be, for his significant contributions to the advancement of cancer control in Canada. And perhaps the most significant of those involves the establishment of the National Cancer Institute of Canada, which became the country's premier organization dedicated to supporting outstanding cancer research and advancing cancer control.

William Boyd was the son of a clergyman. He was born in Portsoy, Scotland, a village of 2,000 people that boasted four large churches and 16 pubs. All of these combined with a boarding school education in Glasgow and medical education at the University of Edinburgh to shape the man who would become one of Canada's greatest medical teachers and writers. He graduated from medicine in 1908 and earned a diploma in psychiatry in 1912. Though he had no formal training in pathology, it was that field that he chose to pursue. A former classmate recommended him to the Manitoba Medical College in Winnipeg, where he was appointed Professor of Pathology in 1915.

A reputation for brilliance

Over the next couple of decades spent in Manitoba, Dr. Boyd cemented his reputation as a brilliant author, orator, and teacher. His books were well read at home and abroad and he was an internationally sought-after public speaker. His reputation increased to the point where he began to exert a considerable amount of influence on national medical affairs – an influence that would soon be felt in the area of cancer control and education.

Having developed an interest in cancer, Dr. Boyd researched and wrote extensively about the spontaneous regression of malignant tumours. In the colourful style for which he was famous, he once described cancer cells as "the bandits of the cellular community." Interestingly, however, his major contribution to the control of cancer in Canada – and it was indeed a major contribution – did not relate to his research. It related instead to his influence on cancer education, and the formation and development of national cancer organizations.

An outspoken crusader for cancer education

In the early 1930s, cancer was an absolutely terrifying disease. It still is today, of course, but back then very little was known about the disease, and people did not even have the simple comfort of knowing that the medical community was working cohesively to combat the disease. In 1931 the Canadian Medical Association's National Study Committee on Cancer was formed, and in 1935, the Governor-General of Canada established a fund to help address the needs of cancer control – the King George V Jubilee Cancer Fund. In 1937, the Canadian Medical Association accepted $7,000 from that fund to establish "a national organization of laymen and physicians to combat the cancer scourge." The result was the Canadian Society for Cancer Control, of which Dr. Boyd was a great supporter.

Over the next few years, Dr. Boyd used the speaking and writing skills for which he was famous to advance a cause about which he had become passionate: the importance of cancer education, both for clinicians and lay people. He wrote and spoke widely on the subject, and in February of 1939 he even shared a microphone with Lord Tweedsmuir, Governor-General of Canada, in a national radio broadcast. His subject, of course, was cancer. In Ontario, he did a great deal of work for the Ontario Cancer Treatment and Research Foundation.

Fighting for a united action against cancer

By 1946, Dr. Boyd was the Chairman of the Canadian Medical Association Committee on Cancer. He was one of several people concerned that, although the Canadian Cancer Society was doing excellent work, it was predominantly a lay organization. Dr. Boyd and others believed that a national body with a more scientific base and emphasis was needed to mount a united action against cancer. They waited with growing impatience as little progress was made in this direction by the federal government.

As it happened, Dr. Boyd was acquainted with the national Health Minister of the day, Paul Martin Sr. Dr. Boyd contacted Martin directly and this discussion may have played a pivotal role in convincing the Health Minister that a national initiative was required. The next year, Martin gathered together a number of representatives and organizations interested in cancer, and all agreed that "there is a need for a sound coordinated national plan of attack on the cancer problem." Two months later, the National Cancer Institute of Canada was born. Three years after that, Dr. Boyd became the institute's president.

Dr. Boyd is one of the great figures in Canadian health care history. He will always be remembered for his silver tongue and golden pen – and for his significant contributions to the advancement of cancer control in Canada.

Dr. Alfred Hardisty Sellers - A Master of Possibilities

Over the four decades of his exemplary career, Dr. Alfred Hardisty Sellers pioneered the establishment of systems for collecting and recording important data about patients with cancer in Ontario. He was someone who understood before many in the field of cancer control that you can’t fix what you can’t measure.

[ 1907–1988 ]

Alfred Hardisty Sellers was born in Toronto in 1907, graduated from North Toronto Collegiate in 1925, and won scholarships in order to enroll in a combined course in Arts and Science and Medicine at the University of Toronto. He graduated with honours from Trinity College in 1929, and in 1932 from the Faculty of Medicine. In 1933 Dr. Sellers earned a Diploma in Public Health and thereafter devoted his life to this discipline.

In the mid-1930s there was imperfect information in Ontario about the numbers of patients developing and dying from cancer. The proportion of patients with cancer treated at one of the newly developed cancer clinics and the overall provincial results of treatment in the clinics were unknown. Clinical records on individual patients, including extent of disease (stage) and treatment, were not uniform, and there was no centralized provincial cancer agency until the establishment of the Ontario Cancer Treatment and Research Foundation (OCTRF) in 1943.

The Minister of Health formed an Advisory Committee on Cancer to give advice on government cancer policy, in part to address the importance of keeping accurate, centralized and readily available records in order to evaluate the program. The formation of a Department of Statistics was considered of paramount importance, and in 1936 Dr. Sellers was appointed the Department's medical statistician.

An unshakeable belief in the power of information

From the beginning of his career, Dr. Sellers knew that mortality data provided important information on the nature and extent of the cancer problem in the province. Extracting the information on deaths from the annual reports of the Registrar General of Ontario, he produced his first statistical report on cancer in 1936. These annual reports reflect the vital importance he attached to accuracy and standardization regarding cause of death on death certificates. The information they contained, aside from its use in evaluation, also generated research questions and became a planning tool for cancer facilities and programs.

In 1937, Dr. Sellers also devised a set of forms that introduced a uniform format for recording information on the clinical data of individual patients. Along with the mortality reports, these data were included in the OCTRF annual reports and were the first "activity level reporting" and consolidation of cancer clinical data in the province.

The Ontario Cancer Registry is born

The establishment of a cancer registry is one of Dr. Sellers' great legacies. While the mortality data were useful, they did not capture all cases of cancer, and Sellers understood that population-wide information was required. A decision was made to use a system in which existing and available information contained in reports for other purposes would be compiled. It was determined that only four main sources of information were required for a highly accurate registry. These sources were: hospital discharge records with cancer as a diagnosis, pathology reports with a mention of cancer, death certificates, and reports on patients referred to the regional cancer centres and the Princess Margaret Hospital. The Ontario Cancer Registry was born.

In the 1970s, recognizing that manual linking and entry of data was too time consuming, Dr. Sellers worked with Dr. W. Robert Bruce and other collaborators to devise a computer program that would automatically link the information required by the registry.

A profound, international contribution

Dr. Sellers also understood early on the importance of being able to record and classify cancer cases into groups according to the stage or extent of disease – both for the immediate rational care of individual patients and for more long-term surveillance purposes. Staging, he said, was part of the international language of cancer. He had made previous attempts, while he was still with the Department of Health in the 1930s, to develop a provincial staging policy. This plan was never fully carried out, but with the later development of the TNM (tumour, node, metastasis) system, Dr. Sellers was able to make a profound contribution on an international level as the Canadian representative on the committee that refined and disseminated the TNM classification. He also designed a number of the site specific staging forms that were used for many years by both the OCTRF centres and the Princess Margaret Hospital.

Dr. Sellers was recognized for his pioneering work in the establishment of systems for collecting and recording important data about patients with cancer. He was a visionary ahead of his time. His observations, for instance, on the need for quantitative study of the ability of existing medical services to adequately serve the population of Ontario were especially prescient in light of today's overcrowded hospitals, long waiting times and shortages of medical personnel. The eventual creation of the Division of Epidemiology and Statistics is a testament to his ground-breaking work in the studies of mortality data, clinical data, staging, and the establishment of the Ontario Cancer Registry. He was a master of identifying possibilities.

Dr. Vera Peters - The Compassionate Innovator

Curious and dogged, Mildred Vera Peters changed the management of Hodgkin’s disease and breast cancer. She is remembered by the international medical and scientific community for her seminal contributions to medical science, and her unique, patient-centred philosophy.

[ 1911–1993 ]

Dr. Vera Peters' groundbreaking studies of patients with Hodgkin's disease – previously thought to be incurable – led to the wide acceptance of high dose radiation treatment as a cure for a large proportion of patients with early stage disease. Her life-long work with patients diagnosed with breast cancer was also extremely important. It established that, for patients with early stage disease, radical and often disfiguring surgery could be replaced by limited, breast conserving surgery followed by radiation. She has been internationally acclaimed for these contributions.

Mildred Vera Peters was born in 1911 on a dairy farm near the Ontario village of Thistletown, now part of Toronto. Her mother was a schoolteacher and a major force in encouraging her seven children to get as much education as possible. From an early age, Peters displayed the independent and unique approach to her studies that would be a hallmark of her later research. Originally enrolled in mathematics and physics at the University of Toronto in the fall of 1928, she had intended to become a teacher. Within several weeks she changed her mind and transferred to the Faculty of Medicine.

"I didn't feel I was in the right place," she explained 50 years later in an interview. "Over a weekend, I switched over to medicine because it was related [to people] and I was interested in people."

Dr. Peters graduated from the six year program with her MD in 1934. During her medical school days, she met not only the challenge of being a female student in a male-dominated faculty, but also the personal tragedy of losing two family members. Her mother died of breast cancer in 1933 and a sister died of tuberculosis in 1934. These losses had a major effect on the person she was, and the doctor she was to become.

A breakthrough discovery for patients with Hodgkin's disease

During her training, she had met Dr. Gordon Richards, Director of the Department of Radiology at Toronto General Hospital and a man who came to be known as the father of the discipline of radiation therapy in Canada. Richards had cared for Dr. Peters' mother throughout her illness with breast cancer. Upon graduation, Peters interned at Toronto's St. John's Hospital, one of the very early facilities in Canada dedicated to the care of women. Following her internship, Dr. Peters joined Dr. Richards at Toronto General Hospital where he became her mentor in the field of radiation therapy. In 1937 she was appointed to the staff as an assistant radiotherapist. In 1958, she moved to the new cancer hospital, Princess Margaret Hospital, where she worked until her retirement.

It was Dr. Richards who suggested to Dr. Peters that she review the records of patients with Hodgkin's disease who had been treated at the institute. Hodgkin's was considered to be incurable, but Dr. Richards pointed out that some of the patients appeared to live for long periods and were, perhaps, cured. The product of Dr. Peters' research was the landmark 1950 publication that showed that a high proportion of patients with early stage disease could be cured if treated with high dose radiation. It also resulted in the first staging system for patients with Hodgkin's disease and demonstrated that the extent of disease at diagnosis was the factor that influenced survival.

Searching for a kinder alternative to radical mastectomy

Dr. Peters' life-long interest in patients with breast cancer was prompted first by her mother's illness and later by the many patients she saw following radical mastectomy – an extensive, often deforming, surgical procedure to remove the cancer. She was driven by a desire to find a more conservative and less debilitating treatment – physically and psychologically – that was as effective as the radical approach. After many years of clinical observation, she carried out a careful retrospective comparison of the outcomes of patients with early stage disease who had local removal of the tumour plus radiation with those who had the more radical surgical procedures followed by radiation. There was no difference in the survival of the two groups. Conservative surgery proved to be as effective as the radical procedures.

Although her pioneering studies into Hodgkin's disease and breast cancer were met initially with skepticism and criticism, her findings in both were ultimately re-confirmed by other large studies and became common practice.

For these contributions Peters received many awards and honours from her peers in the medical community, and in 1975 she became a member of the Order of Canada. One of Toronto's medical school academies bears her name, along with that of Dr. William Boyd – the Peters Boyd Academy.

The embodiment of 'equanimitas'

Peters was an extraordinary physician, not only because of the way she understood and treated diseases, but also because she established a more humane, truly patient-centred approach to the management of these diseases. She projected an aura of calm and absolute competence that left a lasting impression on patients and colleagues. One of the closest of those colleagues, Dr. Harold Warwick, wrote:

"As a young man I enjoyed and was impressed with William Osler's writing entitled Equanimitas. Whenever I saw Vera hard at work in a long day's clinic, unruffled and taking as much care with the last patient as with the first, Osler's comments would come to mind. She was the epitome of what Osler had in mind and embodied all of the qualities of equanimitas."

Vera Peters died in October 1993 at the age of 82 years in the Princess Margaret Hospital – the institution to which she devoted so much of her life. This extraordinary woman is remembered by the international medical and scientific community for her seminal contributions to medical science, and by her patients for her compassionate and understanding care.

Harold E. Johns - A Giant in Cancer History

Harold Elford Johns was the most influential medical physicist in Canadian history. His groundbreaking innovative thinking led to the development of the “cobalt bomb,” a nuclear radiation device that revolutionized the treatment of cancers located deep in the body, where previous radiation therapies had proven ineffective.

[ 1915–1998 ]

Harold Elford Johns was born into a missionary family in western China in 1915. Because of the extreme unrest in China, the Johns family left in 1926, eventually settling in Hamilton, where, in 1936, Harold graduated from McMaster University in mathematics and physics. He received a PhD in physics in 1939 from the University of Toronto, but his planned postdoctoral fellowship at Cambridge fell through with the outbreak of World War II, so he accepted an appointment in the physics department at the University of Alberta. As part of the war effort, Johns became an official radiographer and performed tests on aircraft castings using an old X-ray tube. This was a turning point in his career, as he became interested in the properties and potential of radiation.

At the end of the war, Johns was recruited to the physics department of the University of Saskatchewan, with the agreement that he would spend half his time developing a medical physics group at the Saskatchewan Cancer Commission. During this period Johns made great strides in the field of medical physics. Deeply influenced by the work of Professor V. M. Mayneord of London's Royal Cancer Hospital, his studies culminated in the 1953 publication of The Physics of Radiology (co-authored by John Robert Cunningham), which would become the leading international text in its field.

Johns' view was that external beam radiotherapy by orthovoltage equipment was limited by poor penetration of the radiation and often resulted in extensive skin damage. Concurrent developments in this area during this period included the invention in the U.S. of the Betatron, which accelerated electrons by magnetic induction, allowing high-dose treatment of deep seated tumours with negligible skin damage. Also promising was the use of the radioactive isotope cobalt-60 (Co-60), a product of the war-time work of Dr. Mayneord to build a reactor to produce materials for the first atomic bomb. This secret project led to the development of many new radioisotopes for medical research, including the production of Co60 from cobalt-59.

The making of a peaceful 'bomb'

Johns determined upon his return to the cancer centre in Saskatoon to advance the use of high energy equipment for the treatment of cancer. In 1948, after meeting with Saskatchewan Premier Tommy Douglas, he gained permission to buy and install Canada's first Betatron.

The cost of running and maintaining the unit was high. Johns worked to develop a method using the gamma radiation from Co-60 – sourced from the Chalk River reactor – as a less expensive and simpler way of delivering high energy radiation. Eldorado Mining and Refining had the commercial rights to the isotopes that were produced in Chalk River. A competing group led by Roy Errington in Ottawa was also working with the commercial arm of Eldorado to design a method of delivering the gamma rays from cobalt. This group had an agreement with the Victoria Hospital in London, Ontario, that the Eldorado model would be installed and used at the London Clinic. In this highly-publicized peaceful nuclear race, the Johns version of the "cobalt bomb" opened at the Saskatoon Cancer Clinic October 23, 1951, although the world's first patient was treated in London four days later, 12 days before Saskatoon treated its first cobalt bomb patient.

Relatively cheap and easy to maintain, the machine had a predictable dose delivery and could be operated even in unsophisticated environments. It improved cure rates, and was a major contributor to cancer care throughout the world. Millions of people around the world have benefited from cobalt treatment.

A superb and stimulating teacher

While Johns will always be known best for his role in developing the cobalt therapy unit, his great role as an academic cannot be overstated. In 1956 he was recruited to the University of Toronto and the newly formed Ontario Cancer Institute, where he became Head of the Physics Department. He later became Chair of the University of Toronto Graduate Department of Biophysics.

Johns was a superb and stimulating teacher, if also a challenging one. His students referred to him as "The Whip" and in fact there was a large bullwhip mounted in his laboratory. He had the admirable, and too often rare, ability to grant a point when it was proven. It is remembered that on one occasion, he said to a student: "You can't be right but I will go home and think about it." The next day he returned and said, simply, "You are right."

Throughout his career, Johns kept a close eye on clinical medicine and radiotherapy, always directing his science toward solving clinical problems and improving patient care. His work on cobalt therapy was a prime example of this principle, but there were many others, including his role in developing the automatic dose computer.

He was enormously productive scientifically. In addition to his text book, his writings included more than 200 peer-reviewed papers.

Though he officially retired in 1980, Johns remained active in his professional work for a number of years until the toll of Parkinson's disease curtailed his activities. He died in 1998. He was honoured with medals, awards and citations by many organizations, both within and outside of Canada. He was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1997, and posthumously inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame.

His greatest legacy was the indelible influence he had on his students and colleagues, many of whom went on to senior academic and administrative posts. Their students, in turn, inherited Johns' philosophy of learning and inquiry.

Last modified: Fri, Mar 13, 2009
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