Establishing the Foundation for Medical Research: Dr. John (Jack) Coleman Laidlaw
By: Anna Badner
Dr. John (Jack) Coleman Laidlaw was a practicing Endocrinologist, Emeritus Professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of Toronto, advisor to World Health Organization, and among many others, an innovative force in graduate education.
Coinciding with the start of World War II, Dr. Laidlaw, at age 16, began his medical training at the University of Toronto (UofT) in September 1939. Not only was this an important time in history, but also a revolutionary period of change in the field of medicine. At the forefront of the antibiotic era, doctors were only beginning to gain widespread access to penicillin, driving greater emphasis on research and innovation in patient care. This heightened exposure to scientific promise was the foundation for Dr. Laidlaw’s extraordinary career and vision for clinical investigation.
In his own words, “Science makes all the difference… But to have the science without the human warmth is just not good enough”.1
Innovators have the potential to identify limitations and implement strategic solutions. Accordingly, recognizing the obstructive detachment between basic biological research and clinical application, Dr. Laidlaw sought to create a pioneering interdisciplinary graduate program at the UofT. He wanted Medical Doctorate (MD) degree graduates to have access to graduate level courses in biology, thereby learning proper research methodology and setting a higher standard for translational work. This vision was shared by Dr. Ernest McCulloch and, together, they co-founded the Institute of Medical Science (IMS). Currently one the of the biggest graduate departments at the University of Toronto, with over 600 faculty and 500 students, the IMS was initially met with considerable scrutiny and skepticism. The traditional model of research training received by MD graduate students consisted of year-long apprenticeships, without advanced course requirements or critical evaluation. As a result, the IMS, which offered more structured training, was thought to be unnecessary. Yet, their patience and perseverance paid off when the IMS was approved as a graduate unit of the School of Graduate Studies (SGS) in 1967 and Dr. Laidlaw served as the founding Director from 1967 to 1975.
Although his main interests were in treating patients and training the next generation of clinician investigators, Dr. Laidlaw was also a highly respected researcher in endocrinology. His research career began with a Masters (Toronto, 1947) and a PhD (London, 1950) in Biochemistry, followed by further training at Harvard University. During his scientific endeavours, Dr. Laidlaw tackled subjects ranging from steroids, the adrenal gland and high blood pressure. This work, along-side his advocacy for research education, led him to be named to the Order of Canada in 2003, receive an honorary Doctor of Science from McMaster University in 2004 and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the UofT Faculty of Medicine in 2014. The annual IMS Scientific Day manuscript prize is also named in his honour.
In 2015, Jack passed away at the age of 94. He will continue to be remembered for his medical career, advocacy for clinical research, and important vision for clinical investigation in the 21st century.