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Publication: McGill News add link
Issue: Fall 2001
Title: Roddick Gates Honour Canada's Foremost Physician
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There is no mistaking the entrance to McGill. At other universities you may wander around, wondering which is the front and where lies the campus proper. But not at McGill. The Roddick Gates are on Sherbrooke Street and their wide, embracing arms positively invite you.

To the architectural eye they are classical Greek in design, leading visually and physically up the tree-shaded avenue to the heavy portico of the historic Arts Building, erected in 1843. But the present portico replaced an earlier wooden structure in 1925, and the Roddick Gates, the quintessence of Old McGill, were designed and put in place only at that time.

When Lady Roddick presented the gates to the University, it was not only as a lasting memorial to her late husband Sir Thomas, but also to remind the tardy student that Canada's foremost medical personality had indeed placed great emphasis on punctuality. Ironically, the four faces of the clock tower have never managed to tell the same time, and mostly remain stuck in four whimsical variations.

Thomas Roddick, MDCM1868, became Canadian not merely by accident, but by reason of dire disaster. Born in 1846, he was the son of the headmaster of Harbour Grace Grammar School in Newfoundland. Having decided on a career in medicine, Thomas came at the age of 18 to Montreal to look around before taking a ship for Edinburgh. While he was paying a courtesy call on McGill professor and chief surgeon of the Montreal Hospital, George Fenwick, a telegram was brought in beseeching Fenwick to come to St. Hilaire - a train filled with German immigrants had plunged into the Richelieu River; 100 people were feared dead and there were scores of casualties.

Roddick told Fenwick he had assisted surgeons while at Normal School in Nova Scotia, and volunteered to join the party hurrying to the scene of the tragedy. What he saw of Fenwick's work that day changed his mind and his life. He would qualify not at Edinburgh but at McGill.

As a student he was first-class, winning the Holmes Gold Medal. As a teacher, "he oozed knowledge which never smelt of the lamp." As a surgeon, he was unusually skillful, and although physically powerful, he had an extremely gentle touch with patients, "his bandaging a work of art."

Roddick is memorable because from 1877 he not only accepted Lister's radical germ theory of disease, but made antisepsis a standard practice at the Montreal General Hospital. Two years later, he wrote up his results for the Canadian Medical Journal, quoting a mortality rate after major surgical procedures of 3.1%, at the time an unheard-of achievement.

But he has other claims to fame. During the 1885 Riel Rebellion, Roddick was appointed Chief of the Medical Staff in the Field. Immense distances and very severe weather conditions made all military operations extremely difficult. The Surgeon-General, Dr. Dartay Bergin, and Roddick both hit on the idea of a "hospital train," but it was Roddick who saw that an emigrant-sleeper could easily be converted "into a most admirable hospital car." After the collapse of the rebellion, the wounded had to be returned to the East, so he extended his idea of the hospital car to that of the "hospital - barge." Patients were transported from Saskatoon 1,100 miles by water in 11 days, and after two transshipments all eventually reached Winnipeg.

But Roddick's greatest achievements still lay ahead. In the years after Confederation, each province licensed its own medical practitioners and would allow no one from another jurisdiction to practise in its territory. Nor was there medical reciprocity with Great Britain, a severe handicap for postgraduate studies and immigration. Well, if the law needed to be changed then someone had to do it, and Roddick ran for Parliament to propose the necessary legislation. Alas, he was elected but his party was not! As a backbencher he worked for five years to bring his bill forward. After further delays the Canada Medical Act finally received Royal Assent in 1906. But now each province had to be persuaded to pass the necessary enabling legislation, so Roddick worked tirelessly for five further years.

Finally all nine provinces fell into line, the Canada Medical Act was amended as agreed, and the Medical Council of Canada was established. From April 1912, this body gave the right to practice throughout Canada, to be admitted to the British Register, and to serve (Roddick would naturally think of this) in the medical forces of the army and navy. It was a great step forward for the young nation of Canada and a personal triumph for Roddick.

Roddick was Surgeon-in-Chief of the Royal Victoria Hospital at its opening in 1893, having assisted largely in its planning, and was Dean of the Faculty of Medicine from 1901-08. No other person contributed so much to the development of the Canadian medical profession.

Those welcoming arms of the Roddick Gates express the spirit of a great Canadian and a great university. And if the clock faces do not quite succeed in telling the time, they at least constantly remind us that it is undoubtedly later than we think.

Dr. Stanley Frost, Director of the McGill History Project, is a former dean of the faculties of Religious Studies and Graduate Studies, and also served as a vice-principal from 1969-74. He has written a two-volume history of the University, as well as biographies of former principal Cyril James and University founder James McGill.