Stamps honour six Canadian medical groundbreakers

September 14, 2020
3 minute read

On September 10, 2020, Canada Post issued five stamps honouring six Canadian physicians and researchers whose discoveries have saved lives and revolutionized patient care around the world: Drs. Bruce Chown, Julio Montaner, Balfour Mount, Vera Peters, and James Till and Ernest McCulloch.

At no time in recent history have efforts to develop diagnostics, treatments and preventions for life-threatening diseases been as critical as they are today, with the whole world looking to its physicians, scientists and technologists to help end the global COVID-19 pandemic.

The Canadians working alongside their international colleagues to achieve this goal are continuing a longstanding tradition of medical innovation that has had a profound and positive impact on human health and well-being: Sir Frederick Banting and the discovery of diabetes-controlling insulin; Dr. John Hopps and the invention of the cardiac pacemaker; Dr. Armand Frappier and the prevention of tuberculosis, infant leukemia and polio; Dr. Harold Griffith and the transformation of anesthesia.

While the achievements of some of these Canadian trailblazers are well recognized, many others who have devoted their lives to the discovery and implementation of revolutionary treatments and practices remain relatively unknown. These are the stories of six medical groundbreakers who made historic inroads in the fields of pediatric pathology, HIV/AIDS, palliative care, oncology and stem-cell science.

Biophysicist Dr. James Till and hematologist Dr. Ernest McCulloch began their professional partnership at the Ontario Cancer Institute, now Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, in Toronto. In the late 1950s, they transformed the world’s understanding of tissue renewal by confirming the existence of stem cells – the master cells of a tissue or organ – and laid the foundations for regenerative medicine that has the potential to treat serious conditions such as blindness, paralysis and cancer.

Rhesus (Rh) disease – a potentially deadly condition that can occur when the Rh blood type of an unborn baby is incompatible with that of its mother – was once responsible for 10 per cent of all fetal and neonatal deaths in Canada. Dr. Bruce Chown devoted his career to understanding and preventing the root cause of the disease and, by the late 1960s, had developed a protein injection for mothers-to-be that virtually eliminated it.

Treating some of Canada’s earliest cases of AIDS in Vancouver in the 1980s inspired Dr. Julio Montaner to dedicate his life to studying the fatal disease. His research on the use of various drug combinations led to the development of highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART), which helps slow the progression of HIV disease so that it doesn’t lead to AIDS, and enables those living with HIV to have a near-normal life expectancy.

“I think there are real lessons we can learn now from how we managed a different virus, HIV, in the early ’80s – a virus that was really scary that we didn’t know anything about, which we had no treatment for, and we can see that again with COVID now,” says Fiona Dalton, President and CEO, Providence Health Care, where Dr. Montaner works.

One of only 10 women in a class of 115 when she earned her medical degree in Toronto in 1934, Dr. Vera Peters revolutionized the treatment of two life-threatening forms of cancer. After her landmark 1950 discovery that Hodgkin lymphoma could be cured with radiation therapy, she also proved that a lumpectomy combined with radiation was as effective as a mastectomy for treating early breast cancer.

Discovering that the distress experienced by patients with terminal illnesses exceeded their physical pain, Dr. Balfour Mount advocated for a “whole person” approach to care that also addressed their psychological, social and spiritual needs. The founder of the world’s first comprehensive palliative care unit in a teaching hospital, in Montréal, his efforts to ensure compassionate end-of-life care led to a new field of medicine.

“When pain and other symptoms are controlled, there really is limitless potential for quality of life at the end of life,” says Dr. Mount. “A key component is that it’s not about ending things; it’s about the present moment. That’s all that any of us have – is just now.

“And, it turns out, that there’s endless potential in the present moment.”

Recipients of the Order of Canada and many international honours, these remarkable Canadians improved the lives of millions of people and inspire doctors and researchers who follow in their footsteps.

Stamps honour six Canadian medical groundbreakers

Available now