Within five short days I was given two big awards — one from historians, and one from doctors. It is both gratifying and humbling to be recognized by peers for contributions to our shared endeavours–but it is also daunting. I don’t feel like I am done– I am not dead yet–and still have more to do and say; however, I am old now, four times a grandmother and far less time lies ahead of me than behind. Fortunately my husband came along to both events, as always keeping me grounded when nerves take over. I am so grateful to the people who nominated me for these awards, imagining that I might be a contender.
The first was the Genevieve Miller Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Association for the History of Medicine, an organization through which I have had the best of scholarly feedback on my research and where I have found fellow travellers and soulmates. I think it was the first time it had gone to a Canadian. My remarks of thanks and advice are here. They were little different (though shorter) from what I’d said in June 2017 when AMS gave me that fabulous potlatch dinner. Retirement for a historian means not only will you qualify for the Miller award, but you can also keep on working and create a job for young person. Apparently some old people did not like these words at all and were vocal about it on Twitter and elsewhere.
The second was the formal induction into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame at a lavish, sit-down dinner for 500 people in Montreal. There were six of us inducted, including the late Brock Chisholm, a Canadian military psychiatrist who was the first head of the World Health Organization. His granddaughters were there to accept with eloquence. The organizers had prepared a professional video about me and my work, which is now up on youtube. Again my husband video’d my remarks of thanks and a confession, sincerely meant. We could choose the music that played as we walked to the stage — and I chose an orchestral piece from Handel’s opera Acis and Galatea, as produced and directed by my brother Ross Duffin with his students at Case Western Reserve University (listen here at 4 min 30 sec). We also heard snippets of Lara’s Theme from Dr Zhivago and John Lennon’s Imagine— chosen by the other laureates.
Winning awards is on some level a lottery despite the best of intentions of any selection committee. And choosing one person out of dozens of worthy candidates is difficult. Many people collaborate to create new solutions — as all the laureates made clear in their remarks: they did not get there alone. After a couple decades of teaching my course History of the Nobel Prize: Who Won It? Who Didn’t? and Why? — I had come to see awards as highly political, contingent on context of times and place, and often recognized, in retrospect, as mistaken. I have also marvelled at and tried to understand the pervasive human proclivity to create and venerate heroes, saints, and leaders.
So when these two awards came to me, my former students were laughing. I was being punished for having been irreverent. Suitably chastened, I accepted on behalf of medical historians everywhere, who “get it” that history is important for current medical practice; it will not prevent future mistakes, but it helps us to understand the present, and why things that seem wrong now, were once seen as right. It is the first step to making credible scientific and policy change. It prepares the way for lifelong learning. Every medical school should have at least one historian to advocate for history as a medical research discipline in its own right and to make future doctors skeptical about the durability of everything else that they are being taught.