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Bill Spence, a Surgeon’s Surgeon Reminisces


James Rutka and William Spence

I met with Dr. William (Bill) Spence this summer in the Departmental office in the Stewart Building. He informed me that he has been associated with the Department of Surgery at the University Toronto now for an unbelievable 66 years! His career in Toronto began at the Toronto General Hospital (TGH) in 1957. As many of you are aware, Bill has been a stalwart supporter of the Department of Surgery and has attended all of the Gallie Day Celebrations, save two, over the past 41 years. Bill conducted his clinical practice in general surgery at TGH and retired from active practice at age 70, but kept seeing patients in his office practice until age 88. He is now 91 years of age, but looks decades younger in my opinion.

Bill grew up on a farm with his family in Perth Ontario. He went to a 1-room schoolhouse until high school where he took 11 courses in his final year. He was just shy of 17 years of age when he finished high school. As a child, he enjoyed hockey and softball. Interestingly, he became a school teacher for about a year after high school because of the need for and short supply of teachers in the province. Ultimately, he decided to go on to Queen’s University for medical school. In the summers, he worked on the railroads, and performed surveys for the Department Highways in Tweed Ontario. Bill completed his rotating internship at Queen’s University after medical school before coming to Toronto for surgical experience.

It was a pleasure to hear from Bill the state of surgery in the 1,450-bed hospital at the TGH after insulin was discovered. There was a public ward side on College Street, and the Surgical Floor was on the eastern part of the building, and ward 6 was the public ward. The F ward was for obstetrics. Private patients were looked after on the University wing ward, and as a trainee in surgery he lived basically on the 4th floor in the College wing. His very first rotation was in emergency medicine.

Throughout the course of our conversation, Bill related to me the many colleagues, family members and friends on whom he had operated and of whom he had taken care. One he remembered was Duncan Graham who died eventually from cancer of the pancreas.

But it was truly my pleasure to learn from Bill his impressions of the past Chairs of Surgery. When Bill arrived in Toronto in 1957, Dr. Gallie had just retired and Dr. Janes had taken over. However, Bill remembers the jovial nature of Dr. Gallie, and he actually worked with Dr. Gallie’s son, Hugh, in general surgery. It was Hugh who helped Bill perform his first appendectomy. Bill spent one year at Sunnybrook where he did general surgery, urology and hernia repairs using the living suture technique from fascia lata that Dr. Gallie had popularized.

For Dr. Janes, Bill was his Chief resident and helped look after Dr. Janes’ patients. Basically, as Bill relates, Dr. Janes got what he wanted, when he wanted it, and did not have a great sense of humor.

Dr. Janes was able to secure operative time essentially any time he wanted. In those days, general surgeons did everything from caring for fractures, to dealing with multi-trauma, to performing thoracotomies, to doing head and neck surgery. Dr. Mustard was the Head of the Head and Neck Program at that time. Bill remembers doing a parotidectomy with Dr Janes, and seeing the delicate dissection of all the branches of the facial nerve in a superior technical manner. However, Dr. Janes concentrated his efforts primarily on thoracic surgery procedures. One of his colleagues at that time was Dr. Norm Delarue. He was also the team doctor of the Toronto Maple Leafs. It was quite common for general surgeons to do thyroid, rectal, and transverse colon cancer surgeries. It was Dr. Delarue who discovered the correlation between sputum samples from smokers, and early onset lung cancer. In addition, breast cancer surgery in those days represented quite mutilating surgery with radical mastectomies being performed more often than not. In 1965, Bill went on a James Travelling Fellowship and came back to help with the surgical load at Toronto General Hospital. Dr. Janes sponsored Dr. Wilfred Bigelow to help develop the Cardiac Centre at the Toronto General Hospital, one of the first of its kind in the world.

There was a Janes’ Surgical Society, which rivaled the Gallie Club. Dr Janes had contacts with many surgeons in England, Glasgow and Edinburgh in addition to North American Centres like Detroit and New Orleans.

Dr. Kergin followed Dr Janes as Professor of Surgery. He came as an Oxford graduate and Rhodes Scholar. He was known as “fearless Fred” and he performed mostly thoracic surgery. He was very confident. Interestingly, he was a heavy smoker, and was extremely authoritarian. He reorganized the emergency room at that time. It was during Kergin’s time that Sunnybrook changed from a military hospital to a University of Toronto hospital. Dr. Kergin was well known for his treatment of ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysms, and ultimately also became the Assistant Dean of Medicine at the University. His son Michael became the Canadian ambassador to the United States.

Following Dr. Kergin in sequence was Dr. Drucker who was recruited from the University of Rochester. He was an American surgeon, and had not come through the University of Toronto system. As such, he was a bit out of his element. The word on the street was that Dr. Druker was not a particularly adept technical surgeon. But he was quite connected with the academic side of surgery, and with systems approaches to surgery. His term lasted for 5 years.

Following Dr. Drucker, Dr. Wilson became the next Professor of Surgery. He had the tact of gentle persuasion, which was a wonderful approach to help serve his needs and purposes. He was considered an excellent technical surgeon, and helped to form the cardiovascular group at the Toronto Western Hospital. Under his leadership, the Department of Surgery thrived and moved forward. Dr. Wilson had the vision to initiate Gallie Day as we know it. In addition, he helped to develop all of the specialties in surgery, as we know them today. He had good collaborations with Ray Heimbecker from cardiac surgery, Paul Tremble in thoracic surgery, and John Callaghan who helped develop the pacemaker.

Another name that sprang forward from our conversation included Bruce Tovee who developed the technique for splenectomy in patients with leukemia. He was also the surgeon for the police and ran a clinic in the Stewart Building to look after the Police officers. Dr. Tovee’s wife was an army nurse they had 2 sons, Paul and Steve with whom I went to highschool.

We also talked briefly about Gordon Murray’s contributions, of which there were many to the Department of Surgery. In addition to his work on the development of renal transplant systems, and the use of heparin, Dr. Murray developed a technique of bone grafting using a portion of the clavicle as the donor source.

It was my great pleasure to meet with Dr. Bill Spence, and to spend an afternoon chatting with him. It reminded me how fortunate we are that our historic tradition carries on in the memories of those who worked at some of the most interesting times in the establishment of the Department of Surgery. Bill shows no signs of slowing down at age 91, and we do hope we will continue to see him at many future Gallie Day events.

James T. Rutka, RS McLaughlin Professor and Chair
Department of Surgery, University of Toronto

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