Serving in the Great War. Surviving diabetes. Making an outstanding contribution to medicine in Alberta.

The amazing life of Dr. J.J. (Johnny) Ower, University of Alberta Dean of Medicine (1945-48)

December 1, 2016

Dr. J.J. (Johnny) Ower was one of the critical mass of pioneers who established the faculty of medicine at the University of Alberta
Contributed by: J. Robert Lampard, MD

At a meeting with University of Alberta (U of A) Dean of Medicine Dr. Thomas J. Marrie in 2004, I was asked if I knew anything about the second dean pictured on the conference room wall – Dr. J.J. (Johnny) Ower. I did – a little.

Sir William Osler saw him as a patient in 1916 and diagnosed his acute abdomen as pancreatitis. He predicted Ower might develop diabetes. Ten years later, Ower became an insulin dependent diabetic. The miraculous isolation of insulin by U of A’s Professor Dr. James B. Collip in 1922 saved Ower’s life. Ower became one of the beneficiaries of the $5,000 personal grant from J.D. Rockefeller for the new U of A outpatient diabetic clinic started by Drs. Collip and H. Jamieson.

From dean Marrie’s curious question came the book Deans, Dreams and a President.1 It confirmed the first five deans (Rankin, Ower, Scott, Mackenzie and Cameron) all enlisted in WWI and/or II, spending an average of five years in the Canadian Army Medical Corps, most of it overseas. They all survived and brought back wartime experiences, contacts and friendships which would influence them for the rest of their lives.

Dr. Johnny Ower was a United Empire Loyalist descendent and the 8th consecutive Johnny Ower. Dr. Earle P. Scarlett described him as “a man of singular directness, energy of mind, sincerity and courage, uncompromising in his standards, and yet with a natural charm and almost boyish spirit.” He maintained a lifelong contact with many of his graduates.

Ower was also a diarist and authored two articles for Dr. Scarlett’s Historical Bulletin in 1954, entitled: “Pictures on Memories Walls. Some of the Polychromasia of a Pathologists Life and Times (Parts 1 and 2).” Dr. Scarlett termed the title an appeal to the medical mind, while sending the uninitiated layman to the dictionary.2

After graduation, Ower chose pathology because he preferred patients who couldn’t talk back to ones who cried on his shoulder. His specialty was performing sensitive Wasserman complement fixation tests, before patients received Ehrlich 606 – the arsenic treatment to limit the wartime spread of syphilis.

Having attended a summer cadet camp, Ower applied for a commission in Montreal’s 5th field ambulance, about the same time future U of A Dean Dr. Allan C. Rankin left it. He was accepted for a post-graduate fellowship in the Ashoff Lab in Berlin, but in transit, his ship was met by a destroyer off Scotland. War had been declared August 4, 1914. Mobilized, he joined the #1 Canadian General Hospital laboratory staff under Dr. Rankin at Salisbury, in time to help treat the meningococcal meningitis outbreak – and its 50 deaths.

Dr. Ower was in France on the Burgoyne coast with the #2 General University of Toronto (U of T) Hospital by February 1915, a month before the Canadian army arrived and two months before the first gas attack in April. He remained with it until he was transferred back to the #1 General in November as the head of their three-man lab.

Ower documented what he saw: trench foot; the mysterious trench fever; pneumonia; nephritis; bullet and more serious shrapnel injuries with secondary soil contamination; head, chest and abdominal wounds; and much more. In the lab he managed the blood transfusion service, tested for the Landsteiner ABO groups, performed other common lab tests, updated vaccinations, examined slides for gas gangrene, performed autopsies and confirmed the ANZAC troops brought parasites from Gallipoli and the Indians troops – malaria.

To stay current, a medical society was organized at the expanding base in 1916. The pathologists led the clinical pathology conferences. But the hospital staff and patients still slept in their fragile Indian Raj donated tents – except for three huts donated by New Brunswickers – until 1917, just before the battle of Passchendale.

By 1918 the Etaples hospital complex had grown from two to 20 hospitals with a capacity for 23,000 patients. Despite being labeled a colonial hospital, #1 General gained fame for its highly successful treatment of femur fractures. Using pulleys, four-poster beds and Thomas splints, and not transferring the patients to Britain, their fracture census grew from 50 to 300 of their 2,200 beds.

In May 1918 observant patients noticed high-flying spotter German planes. They preceded the May 19 nocturnal attack on Etaples. It killed 58 and injured 47 of the #1 General’s 250 staff. Eight patients were killed and 30 wounded. Dispersal of the nearby army camp and some hospital patients came too late.

First General was rebuilt just in time for the flu cases that came in by the battalion in June. All recovered in three to four days with few deaths. The Spanish flu epidemic would come to Canada by ship and troop train, unfortunately in a considerably more virulent form.

Offered a position as the provincial pathologist, and the professor and head of pathology at the U of A, Ower was to return to Canada July 1, 1918. His return was interrupted when he was assigned to do Wassermans at the new Ste. Anne's Hospital in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, Quebec followed by flu autopsies in Montreal. He was demobilized in Edmonton in September 1919, but remained in the militia until 1932, becoming the lieutenant colonel of the 13th stationary hospital.

Ower was one of the critical mass of pioneers from McGill University (Rutherford, Tory, Rankin, Ower, Mewburn, Conn and Wilson) and University of Toronto (U of T) (Revell, Jamieson, Collip and Pope), who established the faculty of medicine at the U of A. Well trained, loyal and dedicated, they all remained in Edmonton, extending the program’s length to four years by 1922.

Although knit together by their academic challenges and relative isolation – 1,500 kilometers from the medical school in Winnipeg – Ower was chagrined by the “slow” circulation of medical journals to the faculty. He introduced Osler’s concept of a journal reporting club and formed the first one in 1920. He remained its secretary until 1958, while finding time to incorporate 12 more clubs in all specialties and hospitals, with over 260 members. The program did much to diminish any town-gown conflicts.

When the province ordered all operative specimens be examined by a pathologist (1924) because of the high rural post-operative death rate, 80 hospitals began sending in specimens – 9,000 per year. It was the highest in Canada.

Dr. Ower remained on staff for 31 years as the head of pathology. He was the acting dean (1939-43) and then dean (1945-48). He compressed the medical year into six months to produce two more classes. He also acted as the surgical pathologist for the Misericordia and Edmonton General hospitals for 25 years and became president of both medical staffs.

After he became dean, Ower sought the board of governor’s approval to seed a medical research program in 1946, the same year as the third post-graduate medical training program in Canada was initiated. Under pressure to take veterans and more University of British Columbia (UBC) students, he increased the class intake to 50. He also advised UBC on their new medical school which began in 1950.

Ower was instrumental in having a new provincial laboratory built in 1950. The old lab in the medical school was converted into two labs: the McEachern lab and the Surgical Medical Research lnstitute lab. He recommended to the Senate honorary degrees for Drs. Archer, Collip and Rankin, antedating his own from McGill in 1959. The Ower medal was awarded post-humously to the student with the highest marks after Med 3.

Avocationally he was a cubmaster, scoutmaster and lone scout commissioner for 40 years. The legislature acknowledged his work and the scouting movement granted him its highest Acorn Award. Linguistically, he could speak French, understand and write in Spanish and German, and quote Latin and Greek.

At home he faced challenges. His youngest children, twins, both had severe cleft palates. One could never speak, but became the national parliamentary librarian. Two more sons, including a plastic surgeon and professor of anatomy at the U of T, lived abbreviated lives.

His first diabetic complications appeared in 1953 as retinal hemorrhages. Digital amputations and blindness followed by 1958. Each disability he faced, not as an affliction but as a challenge – learning Braille and typing his own letters as if no impediment had arisen.

Dr. Ower died in 1962 at age 76 – one of the first and longest surviving diabetics in Alberta. The U of A’s focus on diabetic research has deep roots.

References available upon request.

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