Lives of the fellows

James Hilton Darragh

b.25 October 1924 d.10 August 2015
BSc McGill(1946) MD CM(1948) FRCPC(1953) MSc(1959) FACP(1972) FRCP(1987)

Jim Darragh was a senior physician at Montreal General Hospital, Quebec, Canada. He had many loyal patients in Montreal, where he practised internal medicine for much of his career. The story of one of his patients illustrates Darragh’s approach to medicine.

His patient had been a teacher for many years when a new principal was transferred to his school. The new principal began dropping into his classroom unexpectedly, and then would call him into his office to deliver withering critiques of his teaching methods. With each passing day, the teacher found he was becoming more stressed and he was having trouble sleeping. Finally, in desperation, he went to see his doctor, Jim Darragh.

Darragh listened attentively and said: ‘Here’s something that may help.’ He scribbled a prescription, which the teacher stuck into his shirt pocket without reading it. At the drugstore he handed it to the pharmacist who scowled and handed back the prescription: ‘I can’t fill this out. Here, read it yourself.’ The teacher had expected a prescription for an antidepressant, but Darragh had written: ‘On Saturday and Sunday afternoons, go for a walk with your children in the woods.’ The teacher started doing this, and it helped. He started sleeping better and his children loved having more time with their dad.

Jim Darragh believed that medicine is as much an art as a science. He believed in the healing power of nature and exercise. He only prescribed drugs when necessary. He was very concerned about potential side effects and the over-prescription of medications – particularly for the elderly. He never forgot the thalidomide tragedy.

Jim was born in Montreal, the son of Herbert John Cecil Darragh, an educator, and Eva Sara Dunlop Darragh, a teacher. He graduated from McGill Medical School in Montreal in 1948, and then did postgraduate studies in Boston and at Yale University, qualifying as an internist with a specialty in endocrinology. Originally, he planned to settle in the US, and served as a captain in the US Army Medical Corps, however, he was appalled by senator Joe McCarthy’s witch hunt against suspected communists, and decided to return to Canada in 1955. He established a private practice in Montreal, and was eventually appointed senior physician at the Montreal General Hospital (the city’s largest teaching hospital) and associate professor at McGill University Medical School.

Jim had a long association with McGill, and co-authored a history of its medical school (McGill medicine, volume 2, 1885-1936 McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006). He served as associate dean of medicine at McGill, and taught generations of students during his daily rounds at the Montreal General Hospital. From 1970 to 1971, Jim was part of a group of McGill doctors recruited to establish the first medical school in Kenya at the request of the University of Nairobi and the Canadian International Development Agency.

When he returned to Canada from Kenya in 1971, Darragh closed his private practice, and was appointed director of emergency services at the Montreal General Hospital. There he treated everything from knife wounds to drug overdoses, but what really bothered him were patients who were slowly killing themselves by drinking too much, smoking, overeating and not getting enough exercise.

He believed it was his duty to educate his patients how to live healthier lifestyles, to cure the root causes of disease, rather treating the symptoms. When he joined the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada in Ottawa as director of fellowship affairs in 1977, he established continuing education courses on preventative medicine. This remained a priority when he was promoted to executive director of the College in 1980 until his retirement in 1989. During his tenure at the College, Darragh nurtured stronger ties between the Royal Colleges in Canada, the UK and Australia.

Darragh was bilingual. As a long-time member of the executive of the Quebec Medical Association, he worked to develop stronger working relationships between French-speaking and English-speaking physicians, both within Quebec and across Canada.

Jim’s first wife was Marna Avondale Gammell, a social worker, whom he married in 1950. Together they raised three children: Ian, Alex and Jane. Jim passed on his passions for exercise and healthy eating to his children as well as generations of medical students. Darragh’s students at McGill quickly learned that he always used the stairs between floors during rounds, and they faced some good natured teasing if they dared to take the elevator (unless they were disabled).

Some folks become more conservative as they grow older – not so Darragh. In his 60s, he joined the Unitarian Church, and became a supporter of many social justice and environmental causes. He served the church in many senior leadership roles, and was a member of the board of Unitarian House, a residence for senior citizens in Ottawa, until his last year of life.

One of Jim’s principal causes was supporting universal access as a key pillar of Canada’s public health care system. He had lived through the 1960s before Medicare, when many patients could not afford to pay him in cash, and often delayed calling the doctor until it was too late. In those days, Darragh was making house calls at all hours of the night and on weekends, and would often come home with odd bits of furniture or family heirlooms in his car – the only way many patients could pay him was ‘in kind’. He knew first-hand how Medicare had expanded access to healthcare for low-income Canadians.

After his official ‘retirement’ in 1989, Darragh continued to support the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada as honorary archivist and librarian for 16 years. He also served on the College’s archives and library committee (from 1990 to 2002), the history and heritage advisory committee (from 2008 to 2011) and the acquisitions subcommittee. Darragh was also an active member of the Canadian Society for the History of Medicine.

Throughout his life, Darragh participated in an astonishing variety of sports, including tennis, squash, canoeing, kayaking, swimming, wilderness camping, fishing, mountain walking, alpine and cross-country skiing, bicycling, ice skating, horse-back riding and snooker. He completed the 190-mile Coast-to-Coast walk across northern England in his sixties with his second wife, Barbara. He was still cross-country skiing and bicycling in his eighties, and swimming twice a week in his 90th year. Jim also mastered the clarinet well enough to play in community bands, and was an avid lover of classical music, especially Mozart. He was an enthusiastic member of several bridge and cribbage groups. He was also a phenomenal reader, and often had three or more books he was plowing through concurrently. In his eighties, he started reading ebooks on a Kindle. He was an avid adopter of new technology.

Darragh had great respect for artists and craftspeople who make and fix things with their hands. He enjoyed making furniture, often from white pine from his country property in the Gatineau Hills north of Ottawa. All his many hobbies and leisure pursuits enabled Darragh to connect with his patients on many levels.

After his first wife’s death in 1986 he married Barbara Anne Lee. In addition to his second wife, Jim was survived by his three children, two step-children, seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. One of his grandchildren, Patrick James Darragh, has followed in his footsteps and is a physician specialising in internal medicine in Toronto.

Ian Darragh

[The Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada In memoriam – accessed 12 January 2016; Personal papers of James H Darragh; Ottawa Citizen 15 August 2015 – accessed 12 January 2016]

(Volume XII, page web)

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