Lives of the fellows

John Watson Gerrard

b.14 April 1916 d.3 March 2013
OC(1998) BA Oxon(1938) BM BCh(1941) MRCP(1947) DM(1951) FRCPC(1956) FRCP(1967)

John Gerrard was head of the department of pediatrics at the University of Saskatchewan, Canada. He was born in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), the son of Herbert Shaw Gerrard, a medical missionary, and Doris Gerrard née Watson. He grew up in England and, in 1941, obtained his medical degree from Oxford University. During the Second World War he had a distinguished career in the Royal Army Medical Corps, serving in North Africa, Italy and Palestine. After the war he studied paediatrics at the Children's Hospital in Birmingham and completed his doctoral research at Oxford. He then joined the University of Birmingham faculty and undertook further training in paediatric endocrinology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore.

In 1955, Gerrard and his family relocated to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, where he was recruited to become the first head of the department of pediatrics at the University of Saskatchewan, serving in that capacity until 1971. He retired from the department in 1983, but continued to provide care for patients into his eighties, as professor emeritus.

Gerrard was recognised as an astute, dedicated and respected paediatrician and mentor, whose practice and academic activities focused particularly on the care and understanding of patients with allergic disorders. Throughout his career he was admired for his uncompromising commitment to delivering expert, compassionate and comforting care to the many patients and families he served. Gerrard was a strong and effective advocate for paediatric health care services in Saskatchewan; as an example, he successfully campaigned for the creation of the first formalised child development program at the University of Saskatchewan to serve children and families from throughout the province.

He was an innovative, precise, enthusiastic and thoughtful researcher. After completing his doctoral dissertation on kernicterus, in the early 1950s, at the Children’s Hospital in Birmingham, Gerrard, together with Horst Bickel and Evelyn Hickmans, discovered the first effective treatment for phenylketonuria (PKU). Prior to their discovery PKU, a genetic disease, was associated with severe brain damage as a consequence of the toxic effects of high levels of phenylalanine. The team discovered that a diet low in phenylalanine prevented the neurologic damage in a dramatic way. This discovery enabled affected babies to be fed phenylalanine-free formula soon after birth so that they could grow normally and prevent the intellectual disability that would otherwise occur. For their work in discovering treatment for children with PKU, Gerrard, Bickel and Hickmans received the prestigious John Scott medal in 1962.

Gerrard was a strong proponent of breastfeeding. A seminal article in 1974 synthesising evidence to that date was important in refocusing attention to the health benefits of breastfeeding. He was among the earliest proponents of the hygiene hypothesis supporting the view that exposures to common infectious illnesses early in life helped to bolster the immune system and reduce the risk of future allergic tendencies.

During his career Gerrard taught and was a role model for hundreds of undergraduate and postgraduate medical trainees. He was an inspiring, respectful and scholarly teacher.

In 1985, he received the Alan Ross award from the Canadian Paediatric Society for his renowned contributions to child health care, education, research and advocacy. He was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1998, among the country’s highest honours.

Predeceased in 2008 by his wife Betty (Lilian Elisabeth née Whitehead), whom he had married in 1941, he was survived by three sons, Jon, Peter and Chris, seven grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

Alan Rosenberg

[Winnipeg Free Press 5 March 2013 – accessed 28 June 2015]

(Volume XII, page web)

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