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Saturday June 27, 2009

Medical historian collected oral histories from ghetto, labour camp survivors

Physician left practice because he couldn't bear not saving lives

Charles Roland traded his stethoscope for a lectern. He loved medicine but not its practice. After six years of caring for patients, he saw that his true calling was teaching and writing about the history of medicine, particularly Canadian medical history. He became a leader in this field.

Dr. Roland, affectionately called Chuck, excelled in his second career, guiding future doctors, sharing his knowledge, and influencing many areas of medicine in Canada and the United States.

"Chuck was a mentor to most of the historians of medicine in Canada," said Wendy Mitchinson, history professor and research chair in gender and medical history at the University of Waterloo.

"He encouraged us, critiqued us and supported us in our work. The strength of the field is in large part due to him."

He started to research important events and people in medicine at a time when history did not exist as a branch of medicine. "He more than anyone else basically invented Canadian medical history as a field," said Jacalyn Duffin, a medical doctor and Hannah Professor of the History of Medicine at Queen's University.

His pioneering work in recording oral history has left an invaluable legacy. With the advent of the tape recorder, he interviewed aging scientists about their lives, work and discoveries. The tapes and their transcripts are available at McMaster University.

A prolific writer and editor, he authored or edited 33 books, and wrote nearly 500 articles, editorials and reviews. Many of his books are profiles of important scientists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries

"The diversity and amount of his research is both breathtaking and humbling," Prof. Mitchinson said in a tribute to Dr. Roland.

Two of his more notable books, both based on interviews with survivors and research material, are groundbreaking studies of medicine during the Second World War.

Published in 1992, Courage Under Siege: Starvation, Disease, and Death in the Warsaw Ghetto won a Royal Society of Canada medal. Both a social and medical history, it details the medical disaster the Nazis created when they isolated some 400,000 Jews in a small quarter of Warsaw. "The book remains important and will continue to be important forever," Dr. Duffin said.

His second book on the war followed in 2001. Long Night's Journey into Day: Prisoners of War in the Far East centres on the starvation, brutality and disease that allied prisoners, especially Canadians, endured in Japanese labour camps.

It is considered the first book to highlight the connection between ill health and the lives and death of war prisoners.

Dr. Roland helped found the American Osler Society. A great admirer of William Osler, considered the father of modern medicine, Dr. Roland wrote or edited 11 books of his writings, including three volumes of his essays.

The eldest of three children of Jack and Leona Roland, Chuck was born in Winnipeg, his mother's hometown. Shortly after his arrival, his parents returned to their home in a mining settlement on God's Lake, 603 kilometres north of Winnipeg, where Jack was the mine accountant. The family arrived to find their cabin burned to the ground. This seemed to set a pattern of hardships for the Roland family. Not long after, Jack contracted tuberculosis from which he never recovered.

As a youngster, Chuck had his own dogsled team to take him to the one-room schoolhouse almost three kilometres away as there were no roads. He fished through the ice every day to feed his four dogs. His school closed when the teacher went insane, and he was sent to board with a family in Flin Flon to finish his schooling.

With Jack in tuberculosis sanitariums most of the time, Leona worked at what jobs she could to support the family, and that often meant moving. In Chuck's final year of high school, his father entered a Toronto sanitarium and the family relocated to be near him. Chuck completed high school at Toronto's Oakwood Collegiate.

He was determined to attend university despite the family's poor financial state. With savings from his many jobs and financial aid from a Toronto doctor, he was able to attend the University of Toronto. There he met and married Marjorie Kyles. After graduation, they went to Winnipeg where he entered the University of Manitoba medical school.

He earned university tuition by working as a bellhop at Chateau Lake Louise in Alberta where he became a mountain climber. His proficiency came in handy one year when he rescued three tourists stuck on a glacier after four of their friends fell to their death.

With a new medical degree in hand and a family to support, he took a job with a doctor in Tillsonburg, Ont., in 1958. A year later, he accepted a better paying position in Grimsby Ont., where he practised for five years.

He found not being able to save lives depressing because he had a big heart, said his second wife Connie. "He needed a medical degree to do what he really wanted to do which was teach and do research. He was more an academic and scholar than a physician."

Looking for other avenues of work in the medical field, in 1964 he took a job as senior editor at the Journal of the American Medical Association, based in Chicago. He also taught the history of medicine at Northwestern University.

In 1969, his reputation as teacher and scholar brought him to the attention of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, which lured him away to helped start a medical school. That was not an easy task as there was opposition from the University of Minnesota which already had a medical school. The affable Dr. Roland was able to resolve all concerns, said Ken McCracken, a Canadian journalist working in Rochester at the time. "It took a lot of planning, a lot of work and a lot of collaboration. I guess they would eventually have gotten it off the ground but not in the time they did when he was heading it."

At the Mayo Clinic, Dr. Roland also taught medical history, overhauled the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, and chaired the newly created Department of Biomedical Communications. In this latter capacity, he made the Mayo Clinic more open to the media. "The Mayo Clinic was quite conservative at that time but Chuck broke that mould," Mr. McCracken said. "He was very pro-press. He believed in telling people about medicine and the role of medicine in the country's evolution."

In 1977, McMaster University recruited him as its inaugural Hannah Professor of the History of Medicine at its new medical school. He basically created the medical history department.

Back in Canada, he renewed a relationship with a woman he had never forgotten, Connie Rankin. They first met in 1952 on a blind date but broke up a year and a half later. Each married and had a family. Their love story resumed 25 years later when her father, a physician, passed away and Dr. Roland phoned to express his condolences. Both now divorced, their courtship began anew and they married in 1979.

Dr. Roland retired from his university post in 1999 but continued to research and write. During his lengthy career, he was involved in some capacity in many journals, including editing the Canadian Bulletin of Medical History. He served as president of the American Osler Society and the Canadian Society for the History of Medicine.

His awards and honours include an honorary doctorate from the University of Manitoba and the prestigious John McGovern Medal from Oxford University.

His prodigious body of work would suggest that he was a workaholic, which was not the case. Rather, he had a very disciplined approach to work: he worked from 6 to 5, with the rest of the day devoted to family. When holidaying at his cottage, he only worked until noon.

In addition to mountain climbing, he enjoyed scuba diving off the Florida coast where he explored shipwrecks. He was forced to curtail all activities five years ago when he was diagnosed with colon cancer and spent several months in hospital. He recovered but eight months ago doctors found cancer in his liver.


Chuck Roland was born on Jan. 25, 1933, in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He died June 9, 2009, at The Carpenter Hospice in Burlington, Ont., of cancer. He was 76. He leaves his wife, Connie, seven children, 10 grandchildren, and his sisters Carol and Nancy.

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