A surgical legacy

Dr. Vivian McAlister

The Angus D. McLachlin Professorship is building on the surgical excellence established by the Chief, as it enriches the educational experience of the next generation of surgeons

“I have a strong feeling of walking in his shadow as a holder of the professorship.” —Dr. Vivian McAlister

By Jennifer Parraga, BA’93

The chair assumes a place of honour next to Dr. Vivian McAlister’s desk in the Transplant Unit at University Hospital. Strong, sturdy, and well designed, its round shape offers a comfortable sitting—despite its firm construction.

A shiny, brass plaque at the centre of the chair pays homage to Dr. Angus D. McLachlin, MD’32. The Chief, as he is still referred, served as the Chair of the Department of Surgery from 1945 to 1974.

The chair serves as a symbol of the Angus D. McLachlin Professorship in Surgery. It will remain with Dr. McAlister throughout his term as the McLachlin Professor—just as it has with each of the holders of the Professorship since its inception.

The Angus D. McLachlin Professorship was established in 1991 through the generous support of former trainees and colleagues—in honour of Dr. McLachlin’s dedication and contributions as an esteemed teacher and clinician.

The Professorship provides funding to a surgeon who has a strong focus on surgical education and teaching. And with that, the holder has an opportunity to spend time away from the clinic to advance surgical education and teaching. For example, Dr. Edward Meads, MD’63, directed the available funding to support medical students to pursue global health electives overseas. Meanwhile, Dr. Brian Taylor, MD’75, helped to revamp the surgical curriculum for undergraduate medical education.

“He was a very special man and perhaps the last of a breed—athlete, scholar, soldier, researcher, administrator, surgeon, but above all, teacher.”
—Dr. Howard Cameron

Dr. Angus D. McLachlin

Born in St. Thomas, Dr. Angus D. McLachlin was the captain of the Mustang football team, who is said to have played every minute of every game; a Rhodes Scholar; and an officer commanding the Number 10 Canadian Field Surgical Unit in northwestern Europe during World War II.

Serving as the chair of the Department for nearly 30 years, he was known for being a craftsman of the technical aspects of surgery and a strong educator. He passed on his skill and dedication to three decades of surgeons, many of whom continue to practise across Southwestern Ontario. He also is credited for establishing the sub-surgical approach to residency at Western University.

As a surgeon, he is remembered for his encompassing commitment to patient care and his insistence for excellence. “His belief was that patients deserved the best,” recalled Dr. William Wall, MD’70, who was one of Dr. McLachlin’s residents. “He believed that only if you were giving 100 per cent all the time, could the patients’ interests be best served.”

Dr. Meads, who also trained with the Chief agreed. “He was a perfectionist who was honest, dedicated, diligent, and unwavering in his principles,” said Dr. Meads. “He lived for the practice of surgery.”

Dr. McLachlin expected good judgment and sound surgical techniques to be used by his trainees. His approach to training is legendary. Whether through his seminars for undergraduate students or his famed Sunday school sessions with residents, he was superb at simplifying the practice of surgery and passing on his knowledge.

Building on a legacy

Dr. Vivian McAlister is the seventh holder of the Professorship. In the role, he joins an esteemed group of his colleagues including the late Dr. Bill Jamieson, and Drs. Edward Meads, Robert Bourne, Robert Litchfield, Douglas Ross and Brian Taylor.

Born and raised in Ireland, Dr. McAlister made the trek to Canada in 1981—looking for an adventure. He settled into northern Saskatchewan as a family doctor. When his practice began to require more surgical work than he had expected, he pursued additional training with the intention of becoming a community surgeon. However, when an opportunity to do a fellowship with transplant surgeon Dr. Wall became available, he grabbed onto it. With that, his medical career changed forever.

In 2008, Dr. McAlister added a new element to his career and his life when he joined the Canadian Armed Forces. Since then, he has been to Afghanistan five times and participated in a few non-combat missions, including one in Haiti in 2010, following the earthquake.

It’s through his military work that Dr. McAlister feels the closest connection to Dr. McLachlin. “I am the first in a long line, hopefully, of holders of the professorship, who did not per-sonally know Dr. McLachlin,” said Dr. McAlister. “I recognize his contributions in the military during World War II, and I have an understanding of some of the stresses he faced and how he took those experiences back to mould his professional career. I have a strong feeling of walking in his shadow as a holder of the professorship.”

Both physicians also share the honour of receiving the James IV Association of Surgeons Travelling Fellow Award. Dr. McLachlin was in fact the first recipient. The two also served as the Canadian secretary of the James IV Association of Surgeons. “It’s a thrill to read the Chief’s handwritten notes in the records,” said Dr. McAlister, of the historical documents now housed by Western Archives.

Dr. McAlister considers the long-term impact and effect of Dr. McLachlin’s work to be remarkable. He believes the secret ingredient the Chief possessed was that ability to inspire and impress people so much that they, in turn, would share his surgical techniques, his advice and his principles.

Dr. Wall, who remembers Dr. McLachlin with great fondness, agrees. “We would find ourselves in the operating room with a difficult problem,” he said, “and we would always ask ourselves, what would Dr. McLachlin do? That’s indicative of the impact he had.”

As the McLachlin Professor, Dr. McAlister hopes to continue to build on the legacy established by Dr. McLachlin. “The professorship,” he said, “is a stimulus to increase the efforts that I am currently making.” Dr. McAlister intends to spend time building new programs to help hospitals in the region deal with situations of mass casualties.

He also sees his role as editor of the Canadian Journal of Surgery as an opportunity to promote the status and achievements of Canadian surgery, and provide trainees and surgeons in Canada with a greater sense of pride in their work and that of a league of surgeons who came before them.

Dr. McAlister is honoured to be the current holder of the Professorship. “When I came to Western, I would hear about his extraordinary work and mentorship,” he said. “For that reason alone, it’s a great thrill to be honoured as the McLachlin Professor of Surgery.”

Thanks to Dr. McAlister and his fellow professorship holders, the Chief’s work, principles and ideals will continue to inspire generations of surgeons and enhance surgery in Southwestern Ontario and around the world.