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Publication: Globe and Mail, The add link
Issue: 10 February 2009, page R5
Web Link: link


Respected doctor helped reduce maternal mortality rate in Ontario

Mothers-to-be had a greater chance of survival because of physician's treatment and teaching


February 10, 2009

A tall, lanky doctor with a Jimmy Stewart drawl, Dr. Robert Meikeljohn was a reassuring presence for numerous mothers-to-be in Ontario, and his work over more than two decades helped reduce the maternal death rate significantly.

Dr. Meikeljohn was a well-regarded obstetrics and gynecological professor whose particular mission was to reduce the number of maternal and infant deaths in Ontario - a lifetime pursuit that had its origins in family tragedy.

His decision to specialize in obstetrics was had its roots in his father's recounting of the deaths of his first wife and child in childbirth. His father's obvious pain at the event convinced Dr. Meikeljohn to dedicate his efforts to protecting mothers during childbirth.

Robert Blaikie Meikeljohn was born in rural Harriston, Ont., one of three children born to John and Olive (May Hossack) Meikeljohn. His parents were hard-working Scots who emigrated to Canada to run the family's already-established hardware store. The Meikeljohn family was prominent in the community and the hardware store was successful enough that Robert was able to attend medical school at the University of Toronto.

After graduating from the University of Toronto in 1932, Dr. Meikeljohn travelled to Sheffield, England, to study at the renowned Jessop's Hospital for Women. He followed his studies at Jessop's with an internship at the Chelsea Hospital in London but he also found time to indulge in his love for travel and visited many places in Europe before the Second World War. A faithful diarist, he kept meticulous accounts of his adventures, and his diaries later became a valuable resource during his years in the Italian campaign. In 1938, the end of his internship at Chelsea coincided with the unexpected death of his father and he returned home. That year, he joined St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto to practice and teach in obstetrics and gynecology.

The practice was interrupted in 1940, when Dr. Meikeljohn decided to enlist and immediately joined the Canadian 16th Field Ambulance, 4th Armoured Division as a surgeon. These units could quickly assemble fully equipped operating rooms. The aim was to reduce the number of casualties by providing immediate medical attention on the battlefield itself - a practice that originated in the Napoleonic wars.

Dr. Meikeljohn's army career almost foundered while he was en route to Italy. On Nov. 6, 1943, the SS Santa Elena was part of a convoy carrying nursing and medical personnel as well as state-of-the-art medical equipment to Italy when the ship was struck by a German torpedo plane. The ship began to list and take on water and the nurses were hustled into all the available lifeboats to await the SS Monterey, which was only a mile away. The doctors stayed behind to evacuate the injured and eventually took to rafts that bobbed appallingly on choppy waters and made the 50-foot ascent on scramble nets to the Monterey's deck all the more treacherous.

The SS Santa Elena finally sank the following day - the loss of the medical equipment was heartbreaking. It would mean that the Canadian doctors would be scrambling for surgical equipment once they reached Italy. After the Monterey dropped its weary passengers in Naples, Dr. Meikeljohn found his field surgical unit attached to the British 10th Corps and he joined the push to drive the Germans from Italy.

As the Allied army advanced painstakingly up the Italian peninsula, Dr. Meikeljohn fought his own desperate battle to save lives. In a series of interviews he gave to a Veterans Affairs Canada interviewer as part of the Heroes Remember series in 2005, he described the assault on Ravenna, a marshy area honeycombed with minefields. "... the Germans occupied the harbour pretty much and I remember that there was concern because we had been putting in attacks and that meant going across the marsh. And it was mined and we were getting casualties from loss of legs and ... so the chaps were brought back and a lot of them had lost limbs, legs particularly, from the mines." Almost 500 Canadian soldiers died in less than three weeks.

As the war in Italy dragged on and attention focused on Normandy, Dr. Meikeljohn wrote in frustration, "Operating room going strong. 48 cases done. Fighting very tough on Gothic line. Canadians taking punishment. Lads here seem to be supplying the casualties and those in France getting the glory."

Soon after V-E Day, Dr. Meikeljohn returned to Canada and began his meteoric career in medicine. In 1948 he was invited to join the staff at Toronto Western Hospital and became head of the Obstetrics and Gynaecology Department from 1957 to 1970. Later, he was appointed professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the University of Toronto.

In 1957, Dr. Meikeljohn was instrumental in forming the Ontario Medical Association's section on obstetrics and gynecology which was formed to study and improve standards in obstetrical and gynecological practice in the province of Ontario. In the years following the Second World War, the welfare and care of expectant mothers was of concern to many doctors in Ontario. The section was involved in the formation of a province-wide committee to investigate maternal deaths in Ontario. Dr. Meikeljohn was invited to sit on the Maternal Welfare Committee in 1961.

Over the next 20 years, Dr. Meikeljohn saw the maternal death rate in Ontario reduce significantly and he travelled throughout the province teaching doctors the importance of care of mothers during pregnancy and childbirth. At the same time, women from across the province travelled to Toronto to seek his expertise. By all accounts, he was the consummate professional. Perhaps because of the nature of his profession, he was genuinely interested in his patients' lives and their hopes and aspirations.

During this time, his own life had taken a remarkable turn. Family and friends of the doctor had long abandoned the hope that he would ever marry, but in 1953 he happened to meet an Englishwoman named Kathleen Pryor on a blind date. By the end of the year, he and Kathleen had eloped to England and were married in a quiet ceremony. At the age of 50, he became a father for the first time when daughter Cathie was born in 1957, followed by a son, John, in 1959. Although he came to fatherhood late in life, his son John recalls that family life and connections were important to Dr. Meikeljohn. Summers at the cottage were perfect opportunities for family reunions and each night they would play cards for the last piece of dessert.

When Dr. Meikeljohn retired from medicine in 1985, he continued with his busy life. Well into his 70s, he curled, gardened and cross-country skied and in the summers he enjoyed working with his hands while he repaired and refinished boats. He and Kathleen travelled extensively. Dr. Meikeljohn often attributed his longevity to a healthy diet and his mental acuity to solving the cryptic crossword puzzles in The Globe and Mail.


Robert Blaikie Meikeljohn was born on Sept. 26, 1907, in Harriston, Ont. He died peacefully at home in Toronto on Dec. 2, 2008. He was 102. He was predeceased by his wife Kathleen, and is survived by his daughter Cathie and son John and grandchildren Kevin, Courtney, Brian and Scott.