Skip navigation

Saturday November 26, 2011

A raging curiosity matched with intellect

His work extended beyond early childhood education as one of the developers of revolutionary medical school's curriculum

"Do you get it?...Do you get it?," exhorted Jim Mustard in his best imitation of his father's muscular enthusiasm for all things intellectual and innovative. The throng, who had crowded into the Great Hall of Hart House at the University of Toronto yesterday afternoon to celebrate Fraser Mustard's life, had clearly been getting it for years. So, when the younger Mustard followed those rhetorical questions with another demand: "So what are we going to do about it?" there were knowing chuckles, followed by a standing ovation for the medical researcher, educational innovator and master networker who died of cancer on Nov. 16, at age 84.

There's a tendency to think of Mustard as a one note advocate for early childhood education. In fact, his crusade to give all children a good start began late in his long and varied career. He began at a laboratory bench as a research hematologist working on cardiovascular disease-- a medical problem primarily connected with old age--and moved outward to embrace social, economic, educational and environmental studies. That knowledge and experience drew him back to the earliest stages of life as the key intervention point to maximize human development.

Mustard came to believe that health care was but a small part of the answer in producing healthy, productive and engaged citizens. In the endless nurture-versus-nature debate, he came down solidly on the side of nurture, beginning with conception. Besides high-quality care for pregnant women, he advocated for comprehensive and universal preschool education. One week after his death the third volume of the massive Early Years Study that he had pioneered and spearheaded was released.

But early childhood education was far from his only interest. He was the founding chair of the innovative department of medicine at McMaster University, then the founding president of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research - essentially an international research centre without walls - and the inaugural president of CIFAR's The Founders Network.

A man in whom intellectual curiosity raged like a virus, Mustard approached everything in life as a problem to solve, an educational insight that he gleaned as a boy of 11 in the late 1930s, according to his colleague Marian A. Packham in her short biography, Connections and Careers. He wanted to attend the academically elite University of Toronto Schools, but first he had to qualify for admission. Would a beaver build its dam curved upstream or downstream was one of the questions on the stiff entrance exam. Fortunately, the urban kid knew the answer from playing with his rural cousins on family farms northwest of Toronto on summer vacations and on an unscheduled holiday when Toronto schools were closed during the polio epidemic of 1937.

Risk-taking and self-confidence also coursed through his veins. He loved start-ups, institutions where he could establish the parameters and set the direction. "He was an intellectual entrepreneur," said Chaviva Hosek, president of CIFAR, "and boy did he have guts."

The idea for a Canadian-based international research centre had been around for a couple of decades but nobody wanted, in a country of regions, to pin it down structurally in a particular location. Before computerized networks and list serves, Mustard's genius was to create a way for researchers from various disciplines to work collaboratively on large and wide-ranging projects without putting money into bricks and mortar or stealing star academics from their home institutions.

"He imagined into being an institution that still is leading the way in bringing people together to work on complex issues and to take intellectual risks together," said Hosek. "He invented that and he made it happen for the first 14 years of its life."

James Fraser Mustard was born in Toronto on Oct. 16, 1927. His father, Alan Alexander Mustard, was a project manager in the construction business, and his mother, Jean Ann (née Oldham) Mustard was a nurse. During the Depression his father's business failed and his mother went back to nursing to help support the family.

After Whitney Public School, Mustard went to UTS, graduating in 1946 with the Nesbitt Silver Medal for all around achievement. By then he knew he wanted to go into medicine. Spots were hard to find at U of T, however, because the entrance ranks had been swelled by a torrent of veterans wanting to resume their interrupted educations. Mustard spent a year in honours science before switching to medicine.

As at UTS, he played football with future U of T president John Evans, who would be his lifelong friend and colleague. They were both tall, although Mustard, at 6 foot 3 and about 215 pounds, was huskier than the lanky Evans. Mustard played tackle on the Varsity Blues, which won the intercollegiate championship in 1948. The following year he was voted most valuable player by his teammates and won the Johnny Copp Memorial Trophy.

Mustard, who grew a full black beard in the summers working on Ontario Hydro crews in the bush north of Lake Superior, was dubbed Moose by his pals because of his size and his strength, but it was also a pretty good descriptor of his tenacity and powerful drive.

By the time Mustard graduated in 1953 (with an armful of academic prizes), he had switched to coaching rather than playing football because his blood pressure shot up whenever he over-exerted himself. That may have been a misdiagnosis, his friend John Evans revealed in his eulogy, because the blood pressure monitor failed to adjust for the length of Mustards' limbs. However, it did spark Mustard's voracious curiosity both in the consequences of mis-diagnoses and in cardiovascular disease. Mustard's other great achievement as an undergraduate was to marry his Hons. Science classmate Elizabeth (Betty) Sifton on June 4, 1952. Evans was best man.

After a year as a junior intern at the Toronto General Hospital, Mustard realized research appealed to him more than the practise of medicine. Fortunately, he won an Elmore Studentship to Downing College at Cambridge University to do research into hematology. His project, chosen partly because it could be completed in two years, involved blood platelets and laid the foundation for his work on the links between cholesterol in our diets and heart disease and the therapeutic role of Aspirin in diminishing blood clotting. By the time he completed his thesis for a PhD in biology in 1956, he had enough data for five papers, the first of which was published in the British Journal of Hematology.

But that wasn't the only area in which Mustard was productive. While they were in Cambridge, his wife gave birth to their first two children. She would eventually have six between 1954 and 1963, a maternal if not a physiological feat. After they were back in Canada, and as soon as they could afford it, the Mustards bought a farm northwest of Toronto near his childhood summer playground, and christened it Scamperdale. Heat or no heat, the family assembled there on weekends, often with visiting students, scholars and family friends. After raising the children and running the household while her husband travelled and worked late into the night, Betty Mustard developed tic douloureux, an intermittent but intensely painful neuralgia, which eventually led to her death in her mid 70s in July, 2004.

After earning his PhD at Cambridge, Mustard continued his research into platelets at Sunnybrook Hospital, where he was first a senior intern and then a senior research associate in the Department of Veteran's Affairs, which gave him access to elderly veterans as subjects for his research, with a cross appointment to the Department of Medicine at U of T. Even then, he was building networks of researchers who were interested in similar problems.

When Evans went to McMaster in 1965 as founding dean of the Faculty of Medicine (now Health Sciences), he recruited Mustard as professor of pathology and chair of the department. Together, with a small group of revolutionary thinkers, they built a medical school curriculum based on problem solving rather than lectures and rote learning. As well, they sought out students, including women - rare for the time - who were intellectually curious rather than math or biochemistry whizzes.

Students were expected to collect their own data, using all the resources of the university, in an ambitious attempt to inculcate study habits and approaches that would transform them into-life long learners as practising physicians. Breaking with tradition was scary, but the risk paid off with a medical school that set benchmarks for educating, rather than training doctors. "It was the most exciting, audacious time that you can possibly imagine ... and Fraser had a central role in that," said David Sackett, the "father" of evidence-based medicine and inaugural chair of clinical epidemiology and biostatistics at McMaster. When Evans left McMaster to become president of the University of Toronto, Mustard succeeded him as dean in 1972, becoming vice-president of Health Sciences in 1980.

While at McMaster, Mustard continued his own clinical research, set about integrating health services in the wider community and sat on a growing number of boards, councils and royal commissions, all in Ontario. But he was also in demand in Ottawa and abroad, becoming the youngest and first Canadian president of the American Society of Hematology, an adviser and later a founding member of the board of the Aga Khan University with its nucleus in Karachi, Pakistan, and satellite campuses around the world.

Mustard was offered the presidency of McMaster when chemist Arthur Bourns stepped down in 1982, but he was too restless to take on the administration of a university. Besides, another opportunity appealed to him more: inaugural president of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. He thrived at CIFAR and so did the researchers he brought together and inspired. As time passed, Mustard was doing less and less of the hard-line research and more and more of the recruiting, co-ordinating, assessing and fundraising to form massive international research initiatives on everything from cosmology to biodiversity.

In June, 1996, Mustard, claiming to be "worn out" and "fatigued" stepped down as president of CIFAR and was succeed by political scientist Stefan Dupré. Mustard didn't slow down, however. Instead, he set himself up in a downtown office in a renovated tin factory and established The Founders' Network, an offshoot of CIFAR. This is where, just shy of 69, he carried forward everything he had learned at CIFAR from the Population Health and Human Development Programs, and launched a national and international network of researchers concentrating on early childhood development and its relationship to socioeconomic factors.

Over the last decade, the network, co-chaired by Mustard and philanthropist Margaret Norrie McCain (the first female lieutenant-governor of New Brunswick and widow of frozen foods magnate Wallace McCain) has produced its three volume Early Years Study. It stresses that "the real brain drain" occurs in the first six years of life because how children are nurtured and stimulated in those early years affects their ability to function and prosper as adults.

The recent introduction of all-day kindergarten in Ontario is only one of the actions linked to the study's recommendations. But the lead authors, who include policy analyst Kerry McCuaig, think universal and comprehensive early childhood education should start a lot earlier. The final volume, published last week, included a comprehensive tool to measure national standards province by province and gave failing grades to most systems.

Even while championing that research, Mustard agreed to chair a related task force established by current CIFAR president, Chaviva Hosek. We know that early experience has a long-term biological impact on humans, but how does it happen? That was the question. The findings of another massive international research initiative in the Experience-based Brain and Biological Development Program will be presented at the National Academy of Sciences in California in December, a month after Mustard's death. The body has worn out, but the work lives on.

Fraser Mustard, who was awarded the Gairdner Foundation International Award, and named to the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame, the Order of Ontario and a Companion of the Order of Canada, among many other laurels, leaves his six children and nine grandchildren.

Back to top