Freeman: Celebrating the 'father of Family Medicine in Canada'

By Dr. Tom Freeman
October 18, 2012

McWhinneyContributed photo


One of the most celebrated medical scholars and family physicians in the world died on Sept. 28. Dr. Ian Renwick McWhinney is known as the ‘father of Family Medicine in Canada,’ but his influence extends far beyond national borders.

As a young general practitioner in Stratford-on-Avon in Britain, McWhinney travelled to North America in 1964 on a Nuffield Fellowship Tour, visiting numerous practitioners and discussing the practice of medicine. As a result, he published a seminal paper in the Lancet, in which he laid out the fundamental framework for establishing family medicine as an academic discipline. This proved to be the first step in moving general practice from what was, until then, a craft skill to a recognized branch of academic medicine.



The next step became possible when, through the work of Dr. Carol Buck in the Department of Community Medicine and then-Dean Douglas Bocking, McWhinney was recruited to become the first chair of the Department of Family Medicine at Western in 1968. He was also the first professor in this new discipline anywhere in Canada.

Beginning with a postgraduate program in family practice at St. Joseph’s Hospital, and later at Victoria Hospital, McWhinney’s  fledgling department gradually established the standards for training in family medicine. Recognizing the need to develop faculty in the new discipline, he initiated a graduate program in family medicine leading to a master’s degree in 1976. It remains the only master’s program specifically in family medicine in Canada and has graduated more than 85 individuals from around the world who have taken leadership positions in medical education and research. It has recently graduated its first PhD student in family medicine.

Recognizing the importance of dedicated research focusing on the unique questions that arise in family practice, McWhinney established the Centre for Studies in Family Medicine in 1986. That centre is recognized as one of the top research units in family medicine and primary care in the world.

His intellectual contributions to family medicine are perhaps among the most important in the discipline and are conveyed through more than 100 published papers, book chapters and his enormously popular Textbook of Family Medicine, now in its third edition. 

Recognizing the need for a more humanistic medicine, one that valued heart knowledge as well as head knowledge, he was the intellectual force behind the patient-centred clinical method developed here at Western and used around the world. Going beyond a conceptual model of care, this involved a new clinical method, one that could be practiced, be the subject of research and be taught. This culminated in the publication of Patient Centered Medicine: Transforming the Clinical Method.

McWhinney is remembered for his unfailing politeness, graciousness, humility and generosity. He received the Order of Canada in 1998, and was inducted in the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame in 2006. He received honorary degrees from the University of Oslo and Western.

He was predeceased in death by his beloved Betty in 2004. He is survived by his daughters, Heather and Julie; three grandchildren; and his sister.

Dr. Tom Freeman is a professor and former chair of the Department of Family Medicine in the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry.


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