Some people are motivated to make millions of dollars. Others want fame. Dr. John Evans wanted neither. He was satisfied having an impact on some of the country's most important institutions, improving the lives of millions of people. Dr. John Robert Evans died last week at the age of 85. While he never enjoyed the profile of some of his contemporaries, his impact will be felt for generations.
He helped create McMaster University Medical Centre (MUMC) in Hamilton, a leading innovator of health care delivery. As president of the University of Toronto, he changed its method of governance. He played a part in transforming Sunnybrook Hospital from a veteran’s hospital to a world-class health centre. He worked as founding director of the Population, Health and Development Department at the World Bank. He helped create the MaRS Discovery District, an urban innovation hub.
At University of Toronto Schools, Evans made important and lifelong contacts in high school. One of his classmates was Fraser Mustard, with whom he would go on to revolutionize health care delivery in Ontario and around the world.
In the late 1960s, Evans and Mustard began the informal meetings that would lead to the creation of McMaster University Medical Centre, where he helped originate one of the world's most advanced programs in epidemiology and health sciences.
“His work led to a method of health care delivery in that hospital which was deemed to be very innovative and copied by other countries,” said Marnie Paikin, a member of that MUMC board (and, full disclosure, my mother).
Evans' leadership attracted industry leaders to Hamilton, such as David Sackett, a Harvard University grad originally from Chicago, to revolutionize evidence-based medicine. Six years ago, Sackett won the Gairdner Award (also called the baby Nobels) for his pioneering work in that field.
Evans was also part of a team that attracted architect Eberhard Zeidler, who led the innovative design for MUMC.
“None of the walls contained wiring,” remembered Marnie Paikin. “You could configure the spaces and knock out walls without losing access to oxygen, water, electricity, etc. It offered ultimate flexibility. It was a revolutionary design.”
The founding dean of MUMC, Evans was succeeded by his old friend Fraser Mustard.
Evans attended the University of Toronto with a fellow named Bill Davis. Once MUMC was well in hand, it was Davis who, as the premier of Ontario, asked him to become president of their alma mater. Evans accepted and revolutionized the way the university was governed.
(During his swearing-in, Evans passed along the score of the Canada-Soviet Summit Series game that was in progress in Moscow at the same moment.)
Back in those days, every university had a bicameral governance structure (an upper chamber or Senate and a lower house or board of governors, much like Parliament). Evans convinced Davis to blow up the model. As a result, he created the first unicameral university governance structure in the country. It was also much more democratic.
The new U of T Governing Council featured elected alumni, elected students, and elected administrators. Rather than having the government appoint the chair, the new council elected the chair. The first elected chair of U of T's new Governing Council was Marnie Paikin in 1976.
Evans' reputation skyrocketed, so much so that his name was dropped as a potential successor for Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau. When a by-election came up in Toronto's Rosedale riding in 1978, he won the Liberal nomination and appeared to be on his way to Parliament. Then Toronto mayor, David Crombie, left his office a few months early, won the Progressive Conservative nomination, and steamrolled Evans in the by-election, winning by more than 8,500 votes. Evans may have been brilliant, but he was no match for Crombie.
“He had good insight into things,” my mother recalled. “One of the most remarkable men I ever met. His abilities, the way he said things, he came across as a modest, humble, quiet man. He sent hand-written thank you notes. I was always amazed at how he had the time and dedication to do that. Because of his brilliance, he had every right to be an arrogant, non-feeling person. He wasn’t at all like that.”
Even before his work at McMaster, Evans had a hand in historic changes in the hospital world. Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto was originally created to be a veterans' hospital, treating soldiers who returned from World War II, in some cases with profound injuries. The federal government built and owned it. Evans put together the vision for having the feds sell it to the University of Toronto for one dollar. It's since become the world-class Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, a leading research and teaching facility.
After his brush with politics, Evans continued to make his mark, but again, mostly out of the headlines. He became founding director of the Population, Health and Nutrition Department at the World Bank. He became founding CEO of a biotech company called Alelix Biopharmaceuticals, chair of Torstar Corp, the Rockefeller Foundation, Alcan Aluminum, and the Canadian Foundation for Innovation. The latter led Evans to help create the MaRS Discovery District, aimed at commercializing new research. He was the “brains” and Joseph Rotman, who died recently at age 80, the “money” behind MaRS.
Elizabeth Dowdeswell, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, paid tribute by saying, “Dr. Evans’ remarkable intellect coupled with his energy and enthusiasm benefitted every field he served. He was warm, humorous, and dignified, and it is my hope that Ontarians are inspired to learn more about his significant contributions to society."
Image credit: Toronto Star
May we have a moment of your time?
Our public funding only covers some of the cost of producing high-quality, balanced content. We depend on the generosity of people who believe we all should have access to accurate, fair journalism. Caring people just like you!
Get Current Affairs & Documentaries email updates in your inbox every morning.