Former head of surgery pens historical book

Raquel Maurier - 11 March 2013

Robert Macbeth was 89 years-old when his 'labour of love' - a historical book on the Department of Surgery - was published. It was a project the former department head had worked on for 10 years, unsure whether it would become a book or simply an archival document.

"I think the book gives readers a good idea of what medical training was like, at what was then, a small university, and how it grew to be a powerhouse," says Macbeth, who headed the Department of Surgery from 1960 to 1975 - the longest tenure of any surgery department head.

Macbeth is an alumnus of the U of A medical school himself, graduating in 1944. As a student during the Second World War, he was part of the U of A's accelerated medical program designed to increase the number of doctors available in wartime. The program allowed only four weeks off during each school year.

After medical school and before admission to his surgical program, Macbeth completed his Master of Science degree in Montreal at McGill University. There he had the opportunity to get to know and work with J.B. Collip, the biochemist renowned for his major contribution to the development and purification of insulin. Macbeth says this opportunity helped shape and impact his career.

What led Macbeth to apply to the surgery program at McGill University in the first place?

"I never had the opportunity to deliver a baby or see a delivery. I thought I could not be a general practitioner if I had never delivered a baby, so I decided to go into surgery instead."

Prior to the end of the Second World War in 1945, eastern Canada was home to the country's only two surgery training programs. When the war ended, Canadian doctors in the Armed Forces who had completed many surgeries without any training, returned home and had to compete for the limited surgical training spots at eastern universities.

Luckily the U of A medical school had the foresight to address this problem, creating a graduate training program in surgery in 1946. The head of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada said, on reviewing the program in 1960, that it was one of the best surgical programs in Canada.

"We put a lot of emphasis into being one of the first training centres in western Canada, and we strove to be very good at what we did. We took our role seriously," said Macbeth. "The resident training program really took off during the time I was head of the department. Walter Mackenzie laid some important groundwork to make that happen."

Macbeth credited former dean Walter C. Mackenzie for "putting the medical school on the map on an international level" and for encouraging faculty members to conduct research. There was fantastic cardiac surgery research while Macbeth was at the U of A, he says.

"Walter Mackenzie provided the facilities and left me with a very happy, enthusiastic and cooperative faculty to do some groundbreaking research," says Macbeth. "He had incredible foresight and a passion for research."

While writing the book, Macbeth made five two-week long visits to Edmonton from Toronto where he now lives, to conduct interviews and search through archival material. He received funding for the project from the Hannah Institute for the History of Medicine. He wrote all the text, while his wife, Monique, typed the entire manuscript. He credits the editor and the publisher with creating an attractive volume that is enjoyable to read and peruse.

So, will he tackle another writing project at the age of 92?

We're not writing any more books," chuckles Macbeth. "We're just enjoying each other," he says with a smile.

To purchase a copy of this book, please contact Lyndsey Ford.