Memories and milestones: A conversation with Dr. Hugh Allen, MD'48

Dr. Hugh Allen meets with Omar Nawara in his London, Ontario homeDr. Hugh Allen, MD'48, spoke with second-year medical student Omar Nawara at his home in London, Ontario. (Mac Lai/Schulich Medicine & Dentistry)

By Communications

Alumnus Dr. Hugh Allen, MD’48, is celebrating his 75th class reunion at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry’s Homecoming celebrations. He is also a newly minted centenarian, having turned 100 years old earlier this year – making him one of the School’s oldest living alumni.

Dr. Allen is an internationally recognized surgeon and specialist in the field of obstetrics and gynaecology. During his career, he pioneered new surgical techniques and approaches to women’s health care, travelling extensively around the globe to share his skills and insights. In 2016, he was appointed to the Order of Ontario.

Second-year medical student Omar Nawara, President of the Hippocratic Council at Schulich Medicine, spoke to Dr. Allen about his early memories in medicine, career highlights and advice for students.

OMAR NAWARA: Dr. Allen, I’m really excited to be here today to have this conversation with you and get to know you.

HUGH ALLEN: Thanks, Omar. I’m sure you’re a great representative of the profession.

ON: Thank you so much. I really appreciate that; it means so much coming from you. You’re celebrating 75 years as an alumnus and celebrated your 100th birthday earlier this year. Those are some incredible milestones.

Everyone’s story has a beginning and I’m sure there are lots of people out there, students and practising physicians, who would love to know your story. Can you share more about your early years and how you got into medicine?

Dr. Hugh Allen, MD'48, and Omar Nawara, President of the Hippocratic CouncilDr. Hugh Allen, MD'48, and Omar Nawara, President of the Hippocratic Council. (Mac Lai/Schulich Medicine & Dentistry)

HA: The first time it really hit me, I think I was 14 or 15 years old. My father was ill with hepatitis and the family doctor came to visit him. He was a great person – he came to visit my dad every day and did all that he could. He would come out to where I was working on our farm to give me an update and after a time, my father got better.

And so, I thought I’d like to be able to do that kind of thing. I wanted to do something that I could, at the end of the day, say I had really done something to help somebody’s life to be a bit better.

I finished high school at 16 and we didn’t have enough money to send me to university. So, I worked on the farm, and I worked nights at the pea mill.  

You know, work isn’t work when you enjoy every bit of it. And spreading manure with the manure spreader, I could see what it did, but the return wasn’t quite as good.

175 bucks was the tuition back then, and it was tough to come by really. My father and mother made tremendous sacrifices to get me through school.

Looking back at it, I never addressed the fact that I might not make it into medicine, and then from medicine, into practice and so on.

ON: You were dialed in.

HA: I was dialed in. And I was determined to make a go of it.

ON: What was your experience like in medical school?

HA: For my first year, I took general medical science. I was told that if I did that and got good marks, I’d be able to get into medicine. I hitchhiked down to London, and I walked all around North London to find a place to stay that year.

I got into medicine at the end of that year. And as a medical student, I managed to get a job as an orderly at the psychiatric hospital, working on weekends. I worked Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. I got off work Monday morning at 7:45 a.m. to catch the bus to school. It worked out just fine. I was able to pay my board at $7 a week.

My first year, I was president of the class. I was president every year except for one. We were a solid group. Although we did lose a few to organic chemistry. It was the course that took people out because you had to have the marks to stay in. That motivated me, you know? The stakes were really high.

ON: What kept you going?

HA: I had many opportunities along the way, opportunities to help people. I suppose I carried that with me. That really made it so enjoyable for me to be in medicine, to have the privilege of caring for people who were in need of that kind of help.

I never at any time woke up in the morning and wished I could stay in bed. There were always interesting things to know and things I wanted to do.

ON: You’ve done a lot for the field of obstetrics in Canada. What do you consider to be your biggest accomplishments?

HA: My family tells me I’ve been involved in 22 innovations in medicine and surgery over the years.

“That really made it so enjoyable for me to be in medicine, to have the privilege of caring for people who were in need of that kind of help.

—Hugh Allen

For me, one of the big ones was bringing the surgical management of carcinoma of the cervix to the fore. Up until then, if you had a lesion on your cervix, you got radiation. And that radiation really took a toll on all the pelvic organs for the rest of that person’s life, and it was especially horrible for young people.

I brought the surgical treatment to Canada for early cases, and I took great criticism at the time, because I was the only person doing it in those days. But I knew it was the right thing to do for patients. What is the right thing is not always the easy thing.

I also received the Duncan Graham Award from the Royal College for teaching, which meant a lot to me.

ON: If there’s one thing you can recommend or any advice you can give to medical students, parting advice, what would you say to people starting the profession?

HA: That’s an easy question for me. Rule one, always do the right thing. You’ll know what it is. You have to do the right thing.

You have to show up when somebody needs you, whether it’s three in the morning or two in the afternoon or whenever it is, if it’s necessary. You don’t send a message, you show up. And you make sure that everything possible is right for that person, no matter what time of the day or week of the month.

If you’re going to ask people to respect you, you will do the right thing for them.

ON: Absolutely. It’s really been a privilege and an honour chatting with you, Dr. Allen. I’ve learned a lot and your contributions and your dedication to the profession, it all speaks for itself. And again, congratulations on these two milestones you’re celebrating.

HA: Thanks very much, Omar.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.