As November 11th draws near, it’s inevitable that the poem we all know and love will be echoed throughout Canada. Poppies will be worn and displayed symbolising the memorable words, “In Flanders Fields”.
But John McCrae, born in my hometown of Guelph, Ontario, should not only be remembered as the prolific poet who wrote this poem. He was also a heroic doctor.
As it turns out, Canada remembered Dr. McCrae and on April 23, he was one of six “medical heroes” to be inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame for outstanding contributions to medicine and health sciences.
The Canadian Medical Hall of Fame, located in London Ontario, honours pioneers and innovators in the field of medicine whose contributions have greatly impacted Canada and the world.
Lisa Foster, executive director at the Hall of Fame says McCrae is an ideal candidate. “He had a clear love of humanities, but it was his contribution to medicine that makes him so worthy. He was skilled, educated, and prolific in his own right.”
Guelph’s son, as he is so often referred, was an accomplished physician. “His research has significantly impacted further studies into tuberculosis, nephritis, scarlet fever and lobar pneumonia,” says assistant curator, Kathleen Wall of the Guelph Civic Museum.
For Guelphites, Remembrance Day will be a special one this year.
Tammy Adkin, manager of the museum, shares her pride on the 100th anniversary of the First World War and 100 years since the writing of Canada’s most beloved poem.
“It’s so special that this induction is taking place this year. We can celebrate not only what he is best known for, but also for his achievements in medicine which will now be recognised and it is these achievements that are so worthy of recognition”, says Adkin.
“Guelph is fiercely proud that our son is from Guelph. It runs deep within the community and it’s so special”, she says. “He was a bit of a renaissance man. He was a doctor, a poet, an artist, a soldier…there are so many facets to the man, John McCrae.”
And yes, the many facets are right there for all to see when they enter the McCrae House, a tiny stone building which was the place of his birth on November 30, 1872.
A wooden cross hangs on a wall marking the sacrifices made by McCrae and so many other Canadians. Underneath, lay words of remembrance and thanks. A young boy, Daniel, has painted a picture of a poppy, “Thank-you for fighting for us. We love you.”
On another wall are various medals and a handwritten copy of the famous poem by McCrae.
Wall can’t help but laugh. “It’s funny because John’s brother Thomas was a very famous doctor but the notoriety suddenly changed after the writing of the poem.”
The poem was written after McCrae buried his close friend Alexis Helmer who was killed during the second battle at Ypres.
But McCrae’s legacy is also prevalent in his medical work and this is made clear. The house displays pictures during his doctoral career and a copy of a medical textbook that was co-authored by McCrae.
Most of McCrae’s medical career was spent in Montreal where he worked at a number of hospitals. “Pathology was his passion and the idea of quality care meant quality care for everyone. For McCrae, everyone deserved the same amount of service and care,” Wall said.
According to Foster, McCrae had a curious approach. He lived to unfold science and describe new approaches to medicine. He was dedicated to his research and he had an innate quest to uncover science on so many levels.
His dedication as a teacher was also evident. McCrae taught many future doctors. “He was committed to higher education,” Foster says.
But mostly, it was his commitment as a soldier and the dedication and service he provided his fellow comrades that makes him a true hero.
When war was declared in August 1914, McCrae, 41, was overwhelmed by his sense of duty and enlisted immediately. In 1915, deep in the trenches in Ypres and Belgium, he treated the wounded as lieutenant-colonel, in charge of medicine.
In January 1918, McCrae died of pneumonia. He was buried with full military honours in Wimereaux Cemetery in France.
At the McCrae house, a visitor from Belgium is fixated on his Victoria Cross. Elena Drask, 64, has been to McCrae’s burial site in France. “I’m just visiting my brother. I am happy to be here, to see where this man was born”.
McCrae was only 45-years-old when he died. Foster says that it would have been amazing to see what this man could have accomplished because he had already done so much in such a short time.
“He died serving others,” Foster said. “He was all about mending and repairing his fellow officers and this serves as an example for young Canadians pursuing medicine. His legacy lies in helping his fellow soldiers and this must not go unforgotten.”