Alumnus Dr. John McNeill appointed Member of the Order of Canada

In recognition of his ground-breaking research into the links between cardiac disease and diabetes, alumnus, Dr. John McNeill, was appointed as a Member of the Order of Canada.

Alumnus, Dr. John McNeill (BSc 1960, MSc 1962, PhD 1967 [University of Michigan]), completed a Bachelor of Science and a Master of Science in Pharmacy at the Faculty of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Alberta, and a Doctor of Philosophy in Pharmacology at University of Michigan. He went on to work as an Assistant Professor at Michigan State University from 1967 to 1971, before joining the University of British Columbia (UBC) in 1971, where he worked as an Associate Professor and Chairman in the Division of Pharmacology & Toxicology from 1972 to 1975. He then became a Professor in the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences at UBC in 1975, and further went on to serve as the Faculty's Dean for 11 years from 1985 to 1996. 

On November 27th, Dr. McNeill was appointed as a Member (C.M.) of the Order of Canada in recognition of his ground-breaking research into the links between cardiac disease and diabetes. The Order of Canada—established in 1967—is one of the highest honours awarded to Canadian citizens and is presented annually by the governor general in recognition of significant service to the nation.

How does it feel to be appointed to the Order of Canada? 

It feels pretty good! I didn’t realize how many people look at the announcements about who is appointed to the Order of Canada - I’ve had congratulatory cards even from people that live in our condo that didn’t really know what I did for work. It’s been heartwarming. My family was of course very excited to hear the news. Some of my friends are quite impressed that I’m in the Order of Canada alongside Wayne Gretzky!

What career accomplishment do you think you’re most proud of? 

I very much enjoyed teaching both undergraduate and graduate students. Many of whom have gone on to have very successful careers all over the world. I’ve kept in touch with most, and do hear from a number of them almost every year, especially around Christmas time. Certainly, when someone living on the other side of the world calls you and says, “Do you remember me? I was your student”, it’s really heartwarming to see how they’ve gone on to do great things. I can’t take credit for all of their accomplishments, but I was glad to be there along the way. I’m really proud of all of those people. 

One thing I learned along the way is to treat people well. I also made a lot of changes to the curriculum during my time as Dean of the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences at UBC. I tried to modernize it, and since I took over the Faculty during a time of transition and change, we didn’t have a lot of resources available initially, but we accomplished a lot. 

Tell us a little bit about your time at the University of Alberta, and about how you got started in your career journey. 

I started as a pharmacy delivery boy in about grade eight or nine in the Strathern area of Edmonton. I got that job, and I really liked it. I got along very well with the pharmacy manager, William (Bill) Hawker. He was a very disciplined man, you had to do everything right, but I got to start making ointments under supervision from a young age. He taught me how to do a whole bunch of things, and I’ve never forgotten him. 

I had to then do an apprenticeship for twenty dollars and eight five cents a week before applying for university. I worked very hard, but I had excellent supervisors, so I was very pleased to get into the pharmacy program at the University of Alberta. The classes were not very big at that time, and we did three years of training. The Dean at that time was Dean Mervyn Huston, who I also learned a lot from. He was a tremendous lecturer, he wrote novels, had a great sense of humour, was a jazz trumpet player, and he treated us all like we were adults from the beginning. He treated us all with respect. 

Dr. Bernie Riedel was also a professor at the University of Alberta at that time, who actually hired me at UBC when I moved there after being in Michigan. The hands-on training I received at University of Alberta helped me in getting accepted to my PhD program, which was very difficult to get into at that time, especially as a Canadian. 

You’ve been a regular supporter and donor of the Faculty of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences for many years. What’s encouraged you and your wife to give back? 

I’ve kept in touch with the Faculty since the time I left there. I have fond memories of my time at the U of A, and it’s where I met my lovely wife Sharon, of course. We’re still happily together after all these years. We started contributing just small amounts of money at first, but we’ve been able to increase that over the years. We think it’s important to give back, and to help students out and help the Faculty grow. 

What advice would you give to students interested in pursuing a career in research or teaching? 

You have to want to do it. It’s difficult, and you don’t make very much money for a long while. You have to work long, hard hours. I remember working 36 hours straight doing research when I was a student running experiments. 

I’d also recommend getting involved in public speaking along the way. And learn how to teach people in a way that they will understand.