Evans, John Robert

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Evans, John Robert

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John Robert Evans was born in Toronto on 1 October 1929. He attended the University of Toronto Schools from 1939 to 1946 and then studied medicine at the University of Toronto, from which he graduated with an MD in 1952. Awarded the Rhodes Scholarship for Ontario in 1952, he went to Oxford University where he earned his D.Phil in 1955. Between 1955 and 1961 he did post-graduate training and research in internal medicine and cardiology in London, England, Toronto and at Harvard University. In 1958 he became a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Canada and in 1960 a Fellow of the American College of Physicians.

From 1961 to 1965 he was an associate in the Department of Medicine in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto and a physician at the Toronto General Hospital. In 1965, at the age of 35, he was appointed founding dean of the Faculty of Medicine at McMaster University and Vice-President (Health Sciences). “His recruitment efforts produced a stellar cast of educators who moved the school immediately into the vanguard of advanced medical education and the effective application of clinical epidemiology. Under his leadership, the new school was fertile ground for pioneering work in patient-centred curriculum and innovative problem-based learning, a cumulative integrated, progressive, consistent strategy now refined and used in the world’s most prestigious medical schools” [1].

In 1972 Dr. Evans left McMaster to succeed Claude Bissell as President of the University of Toronto, a position he held until 1978. His tenure occurred during a time of increasing financial restraint and began with the report of the Commission on Post-Secondary Education in Ontario, to which he responded with his own predictions, “naming public accountability and participation in civil society as issues that would mark the future of public higher education” [2]. In 1978 he stood as the Liberal candidate in a federal by-election in Rosedale in Toronto but was defeated by David Crombie.

Dr. Evans work had already attracted international attention, and in 1979 he was commissioned by the Rockefeller Foundation to head its Commission on the Future of Schools of Public Health, for which he produced an international study of public health and population-based medicine. This led, a few months later, to his joining the World Bank as founding director of its Population, Health and Nutrition Department. Over the course of the next four years, he was “instrumental in introducing broader concepts in health determinants, setting a direction that lead to fundamental contributions to health programs in underdeveloped countries and hearteningly notable changes in infant mortality” [3].
In 1982 Dr. Evans joined the board of the Rockefeller Foundation and served as its chair from 1987 to 1995, the first Canadian to do so.

In 1983 Dr. Evans joined Allelix Biopharmaceuticals Inc. of Mississauga, Ontario, as chair and CEO, a position he held until 1990. As such, he established Canada’s first biotechnology company, creating a model for the country’s biotechnology industry. Since 2000 he has
been vice-chair of NPS-Allelix Biopharmaceuticals. He has also served as chairman of the board of Torstar (1993-2005), and chairman of the board of Alcan Aluminium Ltd. (1996-2002). In 1997 he was appointed the first chair of the Canadian Foundation for Innovation, an independent corporation established by the Government of Canada. He was a moving force behind the creation of the Medical and Related Science Research District in Toronto (MaRS) and is its first chair (from 2000). From 2003 to 2005 he chaired the Ontario Cancer Research Network, and from 2005 has been chair of the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research (OICR). From 1990 to 2000 he was chair of the Walter and Duncan Gordon Charitable Foundation. Dr. Evans is, one of his colleagues has argued, “the most connected person in Canada.” [4]

Dr. Evans expertise has been widely sought in the fields of medicine and public health. He has chaired the National Biotechnology Advisory Committee of Canada, the Ontario Premier’s Health Review Panel, the International Commission on Health Research for Development (1997-1998), the African Medical Research Foundation – Canada, and the Pew Charitable Trusts Program Advisory Committees on International Health Policy and Global Stewardship Initiatives (1988-1994). He was a member of the Council for the Institute of Medicine of the United States National Academy of Science, the World Health Organization’s Advisory Committee on Medical Research, and the federal Pepin-Robarts Commission on National Unity. He was a member of the Hospital for Sick Children’s Foundation and the Alberta Premier’s Council on Health. He served on the board of MDS from 1989 to 2005.

Dr. Evans has been the recipient of many honours. These include several honorary degrees from Canadian universities (for example, LLD, University of Toronto 1980; LLD, University of Calgary 1996), Yale University, Johns Hopkins University and Universiteit Maastricht. He was also elected Honorary Fellow of University College, Oxford, the London School of Hygiene and the Royal College of Physicians (London). In 1978 he was named a Companion of the Order of Canada and to the Order of Ontario in 1991. The following year the Gardner Foundation gave him its Wightman Award and in 2000 he was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame. In 2001 he and his wife, Gay Glassco, were jointly honoured by the Canadian Council of Christians and Jews. In 2002 he received the F.N.G. Starr Award from the Canadian Medical Association and was honoured when the John R. Evans Chair in Health Sciences Educational Research was established at McMaster University. In 2005 he was inducted into the Canadian Business Hall of Fame and in 2007 he was awarded the Henry G. Friesen International Prize in Health Research.

Dr. Evans died at his home of Parkinson’s disease on Feb. 13 2015, at the age of 85


  1. ‘F.N.G. Starr Award’, installation ceremonies and awards program, Canadian Medical Association (135 annual meeting, 21 August 2002, Saint John, NB).
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Personal communication to the compiler of this finding aid.

Obituary in the Globe and Mail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/a-humble-man-of-many-talents-john-evans-reinvented-medical-education/article23349905/


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