McMaster is stronger thanks to Bill Walsh
Local physician’s dedication, diplomacy helped make Hamilton’s medical school unique
When the McMaster University Medical Centre was dropped like a giant grey anvil on top of Westdale’s beloved Sunken Garden, Bill Walsh picked up the pieces and mended the fences. This was in the 1960s — halcyon days for Hamilton. The city was bustling, vibrant and full of energy. Hamilton was a manufacturing powerhouse producing everything from steel to candy.
McMaster had just celebrated its 35th anniversary in Hamilton and the university was as brash as its hometown. President Harry Thode had great ambition for his school and the city, and he believed a medical school would help put Hamilton and McMaster on the international stage. That would only happen, of course, if the medical school was different enough to complement McMaster’s growing reputation for innovation.
Dr. John Evans was selected to lead the medical school. His first recruit was Dr. Bill Walsh. Bill was born in Hamilton, the greatgrandson of an Irishman who came to Canada to escape the Great Famine of 1850. Bill went to Westdale Secondary School, and then completed his medical degree at Western University before becoming a specialist in internal medicine. Bill also had the diplomatic balance of a tightrope walker. He was exactly what McMaster needed.
Bill was wise and widely trusted by Hamilton’s citizens and the local physicians who would teach in this new school. Bill was negotiator of great integrity — a bulldog who still helped all sides find victory. He had wit and charm. He was Cary Grant-handsome, charismatic and dashing. He drew people to him and he built bridges. He was a diplomat.
Long recognized as an excellent physician, Bill quickly became an academic visionary. Working with John Evans, Bill Spaulding, Fraser Mustard and others, he was part of the key team that devoted itself to making the McMaster School of Medicine completely different. If all other schools took four years to complete medical training, McMaster would do it in three. No giant lecture halls, instead, early engagement with patients.
McMaster would welcome students from all academic backgrounds, not just science … and there, the team hit a snag. In those years, the medical school regulator was the Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons which opposed the admission of non-science students. Bill Walsh, ever the bridge builder, became McMaster’s representative to the college, and shortly, its president. Soon, McMaster was able to admit students from a range of academic disciplines.
Bill Walsh loved everything about life, particularly his family and friends. His friends spanned people from neighbourhoods across the city. But he also knew prominent Hamiltonians like Michael G. DeGroote, Joe Peller, Bill Goldberg, Ross Craig and many others. But most of all, Bill was devoted to his family: his wife Peggy, daughter Allyn, sons James and Robert, his five grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Sports and music also played important roles in his life. Before jogging became commonplace, Bill Walsh ran. He ran and he ran, often with one of his beloved dogs. At the time, his behaviour was so unusual that he and his jogging companion, Maggie the dog, had their picture in a local paper. During his medical school days, a misdiagnosed case of appendicitis had prevented him from making a run at the Olympics and almost ended his life. He might have missed a shot at a medal, but the experience taught him the vital importance of being a meticulous doctor. Bill was proud of a paper that he published in the Canadian Veterinary Journal where he authoritatively made the case that, like physicians, veterinarians should specialize. When asked about his veterinary credentials, he would mention Maggie, Paddy, Tuffy and the other canine friends that followed.
Bill was quick to try anything. In his 60s, when windsurfing came to Canada, he happily skimmed across the scalloped surface of Hamilton Harbour. He even tried boxing. The day he entered the ring to face the Canadian middle weight champion led to a story as brief as the bout: “I recall entering the ring, and then slowly coming back to consciousness.”
Throughout his many adventures, Bill Walsh remained a remarkably kind, caring and perhaps above all, knowledgeable physician. He was the doctor that many of our city’s physicians went to see when they needed medical help. He was, literally, a doctor’s doctor. The man who advised McMaster’s first dean of medicine continued to provide wisdom to John Evans’s successors — us included — for four decades. We can attest that the brilliance of his perspective, insight and advice was undiminished to the end.
Bill Walsh died last month at age 92. He will be missed.
Bill Walsh, back row centre, helped establish McMaster’s medical school. He is pictured with his grandson Simon Oczkowski, foreground, at his graduation from medical school in 2009 where he became the third-generation doctor in his family.