Duncan Sinclair

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Graduation Year




Interview Date


D. Butler

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RE1 UOG A1340174


Duncan Sinclair interview


D. Butler (00:00):
This is an interview with Dr. Duncan Sinclair, uh, OVC 58. Uh, he's a, uh, retired faculty person from the, uh, University of Queen, uh, Queens University in Kingston, Ontario. And this is for the university of Guelph Alumni Association, alumni in action oral history project. Dr. Dun Sinclair. Um, we're interested in what would have caused you to come to the Guelph campus and specifically to apply to OVC? And by way of, of background, uh, perhaps you'd like to comment on your upbringing, uh, and how that affected your early years in character development. And, and tell us a little bit about what gave you direction to come to Guelph.

Duncan Sinclair (00:55):
Well, it, it's actually a very long story, Dan. I was born in the United States, uh, in Rochester, New York, where my father was, uh, the, one of the two earliest graduate students, Walter Bloor. Walter Bloor was the Dean of American Lipid Bio- Biochemists. Uh, very, very famous man. She got the Nobel prize, uh, at least I believe. And my, my father was, had been Canadian, uh, but had moved to United States to do, uh, his PhD and was, was in state. He was on faculty at the University of Rochester. Uh, when he was, uh, recruited by the then principal of Queens University here, Wallace, Robert Wallace, uh, to start a department of biochemistry. Uh, and so after, uh, much consideration as the family moved to Canada, I was just a boy. And, uh, uh, we settled outside Kingston, some, uh, five miles actually turns out seven miles away. Everybody thought he was nuts, uh, to live so far from campus in those days, 'cause Queens was about 1500 souls at the time, very small, uh, institution.

Duncan Sinclair (02:21):
But my father was a frustrated farmer. Uh, he was a very distinguished biochemist. Uh, remember of the Royal Society and, uh, did it, he was really good at what he did. Uh, but he really did like, so he had a hobby farm. And uh, I grew up there. Uh, went to a one room country, um, usual thing. And my father died when I was 16. He was drowned. And, uh, with the, as, as you might expect that with the 16 year old, uh, I was the eldest in the family and I fixed on an ambition, I'd follow in my father's footstep. And, uh, so I came to Queens, uh, for a year, um, thinking that I would, uh, go into medicine, uh, but I wasn't, uh, entirely happy with that decision. And then I decided, uh, that actually, if I were gonna do basic sciences, a veterinary education would probably be, uh, a better background for it.

Duncan Sinclair (03:30):
As it turns out when I've done all my life, uh, I would've been better to do business and economics and social psychology and things like that. But, um, so we had to had in our little hobby farm, a cow and a horse and we raised some pigs sometimes and we always had chickens. And, uh, inevitably some- something would get sick sometimes. And there was a local veterinarian, uh, who would come around and, uh, I seemed quite interested in what he was uh, doing. And I helped him from time to time, uh, uh, spay animals and do kinds of things like that. Veterinary medicine was much less formal. It was very casual in those days. Uh, in any case, uh, uh, with the wisdom of a then 19 year old, 18 year old, I decided, well, I would go into veterinary medicine rather than human medicine and did. Went to Guelph, uh, basically decided on scene and, uh, um, did my five years there and enjoyed it and learned a great deal. And was on the point actually, uh, I was, accumulated a few debts, uh, as students will.

Duncan Sinclair (04:51):
And I was on the point of actually going to Detroit for a couple years and make money and pay off my debts when, a, um, um, man named Evans who was in the department of nutrition, asked me if I would be interested in doing graduate work. And, uh, so I, I thought about that for a little while and uh, decided to do it. And so I stayed on and, not at Guelph. Guelph didn't have a graduate school at the time. It was the University of Toronto. And, uh, so I did a, a, uh, master's degree in nutrition biochemistry. And then, uh, at that stage, my mother, uh, who had gone back to teaching after my father died, my mother is an American, uh, history teacher, high school. Uh, when she went back into teaching here in Ontario, she really didn't like it. It was very, well, frankly, the teacher's union was a big, big pain for anybody who was a real professional.

Duncan Sinclair (06:01):
So, she decided that, that, uh, well, in her 50s that she was gonna go to library school, and did. In order that she could do that, uh, I came, I, rather than going to Chicago where I was gonna do my PhD, I came to Queens and I did a PhD in physiology here and looked after the family. And, uh, uh, mother, uh, completed her degree, did very well and she, uh, joined the Kingston Public Library and was happy as a clam. And, and, and, uh, so I, uh, I did a PhD in physiology here. And then I went to New York City and I did my postdoc in Presbyterian Hospital.

Duncan Sinclair (06:44):
And, and then, uh, I was appointed, uh, um, mirror senior scholar in medical research at the University of Cambridge in England, where I very nearly stayed, uh, had it not been that, uh, my in-laws had hardly seen our son. He was born here and then we took off for England. And, uh, they were not particularly well. So anyway, we come back here to Canada for a year or so. Uh, and frankly I never left. So, that was a long, it's a long story, but, uh, uh, veterinary medicine was for me, always a stepping stone, but at the time I, I never think of it much that way. It's, uh, I might have gone into practice. I might have done a variety of things, but as with, uh, most people, it's the Prince of Serendip who-

D. Butler (07:44):
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Duncan Sinclair (07:45):
... decides basically. So by happy chance, uh, uh, I happened to be on duty in the post-mortem room and, uh, Larry, oh, Smith, uh, was the pathologist on charge and it was he who talked to me about the graduate work particularly. And, uh, he knew this Ontario feed manufacturer's scholarship was going begging. And, uh, uh, maybe he saw something in me that, uh... Anyway, he, he was part of the, who persuaded me that I should work with, uh, Evans. And so I did anyway. Uh, and coming to Queens rather than going to Chicago for graduate work, uh, again was, was my mother's decision, not my own really. Uh, so happy chance, uh, rules, most of us.

D. Butler (08:39):
Um, at the time you were going through OVC, um, were there any particular, uh, events or friendships that were, uh, that stand out in your mind?

Duncan Sinclair (08:56):
Oh, yeah. Yes, lots. Um, uh, our class OVC 58, uh, is very tight. Uh, we continue to hold reunions almost every year. Uh, in fact, there's one coming up, uh, uh, this summer, uh, and that, that group... Now mind, as, as with all classes that is largely attributable to the spark plugging of a couple of people, Mark Wallcroft, uh, was one who subsequently or unfortunately died way too young. Rod Davies, uh, still continue with that. And, uh, uh, Don McEwen and Paul, Paul Pennock and, uh, a bunch of really terrific, uh, uh, blocking his name, Doug, uh, Doug, hmm, also lives near Guelph, Miller, Doug, Doug Miller. Uh, they're just phenomenal. And, uh, they've kept us all together.

Duncan Sinclair (10:02):
And we, so we meet from time to time and, uh, we became good friends as students, uh, and have continued so. And among the faculty, which was of course very much small, I became, my wife and I became particular friends with, uh, Red Fraser, uh, who subsequently went on to do a variety of things. And we spent a lot of time at their home and with family. Jack and Des Cody know them, uh, very well. Uh, so, uh, yes, uh, uh, we, uh, Jim Archibald, we knew very well and, uh, Doug Blood, uh, knew particularly well. Uh, he was there. Larry Wilson, uh, yeah, not Larry Wilson. Uh, uh, I'm thinking about my previous assessor dean here. Uh, uh, Dick Humble was another man who, uh, uh... I played in the college orchestra. It was all three colleges and, uh, uh, Dick played the drums and, uh, knew him well. Kennedy, uh, he was the, uh, professor who specialized in fur-bearing animals. And, uh, I worked for him, uh, one summer. So yeah, we, uh, Christmas is a small place.

D. Butler (11:32):
How did you end up teaching physiology at Queens?

Duncan Sinclair (11:39):
Uh, well, I'd done my PhD in the subject and, uh, I had gone, my work was in the regulatory mechanisms, how by, whereby molecules get across membranes and are selectively g- got across membrane. And, uh, I built on that with some work in New York that dealt with particularly the radiology of blood and, uh, changes in the fluid volumes that were associated with shock. And, uh, then when I went to England, uh, I worked, uh, there on a new project, which is more biochemical. This was, was a very early days of the growth factor discoveries. Rita Levi-Montalcini and her group in, uh, Rome had, uh, developed this nerve growth factor. Well, they'd observed the phenomenon, the nerve growth factor. We didn't know what it was. So, I kind of switched a bit and I, uh, began focused on trying to extract, uh, to purify and crystallize, uh, nerve growth factor, uh, which I was never able to do.

Duncan Sinclair (12:56):
Uh, the techniques, the biochemical tools were just not available in those days, uh, needed huge volumes of things. And, uh, getting huge volumes of raw material were very difficult. So anyway, uh, I had, I was offered a position in Cambridge to stay, and, uh, as I said, there was a bit of a emotional tussle, but we decided we'd come back to Canada, uh, at least temporarily. I was recruited by a man here, name of Donald Hatcher, who subsequently, he was head of physiology and he subsequently became dean of medicine at, uh, Dalhousie. And, uh, so he was one of my great mentors. He didn't supervise my PhD. That was another man, uh, but Hatch and I knew one another very well. And, uh, yeah, and this would be a good fit where, of course, we're very familiar with Queens. My wife is from Kingston. And, uh, so in some sense, it was like coming home.

Duncan Sinclair (14:05):
Uh, the universe was expanding very rapidly and we had a new dean of medicine and who was Harry Baral, uh, neurosurgeon from Toronto who was really, uh, transforming the place from almost Presbyterian to, to a modern, uh, uh, faculty. And, uh, things were really booming at the time. And, and frankly, uh, university (laughs) were kind of short supply. So, uh, my colleagues and I, all of them, we could have gone anywhere and, uh, had all kinds of offers to do interesting things. So, that's really what... We came here, uh, with a view to, uh, uh, well, uh, having my in-laws get reacquainted, get acquainted with our son and, uh, uh, I then tested whether I really wanted to live in Britain or live here. And, uh, we decided to stay. Uh-

D. Butler (15:14):
So staying on in physiology, eventually you became dean of the medical school?

Duncan Sinclair (15:20):
Uh, no, uh, no, that wasn't the way it went really. Uh, uh, one of the sort of chores I got involved... You know, everybody does their research, does their teaching and do some chores. And one of the chores I got involved with, uh, uh, again, largely at Hatch's request, we all had our various portfolio was, uh, uh, advising undergraduate students. And at that time, uh, the department of physiology, anatomy, pharmacology, pathology, biology, psychology, biochemistry, all offered separate honors programs. And these poor kids would take more or less a common first year, um, virtually, they all come first year. But then as they finished, they are in their second term of first year, they had to make a declaration, whether they would become an honors physiology student or an honors biochemistry or whatever, and they had no experience whatsoever, but these things really were, it was a dumb way of organizing. It, it was a very common way, but it was dumb.

Duncan Sinclair (16:35):
So, I got involved with, uh, the development of an integrated life sciences program, which would take the student raw from high school and put him or her through three years of more, pretty common background in all of the biological sciences and a very intensive, highly specialized fourth year in which they were fundamentally doing some research as well as going down in depth in a particular discipline. And this proved to be a, uh, very attractive. And this experimental program, uh, which had to be argued all the way through Senate and all of this stuff, uh, became the largest single honors program in the university, and has been copied all over the place. And, uh, uh, as a conseq- well, partially as a consequence of doing that and partially as a consequence of working with Harry Baral, who, this, uh, hyperactive dean. He was really, got us involved with all kinds of things.

Duncan Sinclair (17:50):
Uh, because of my background in veterinary medicine, he, uh, made me the chair of the animal care committee and we were having a terrible time accommodating animals, uh, making sure they were well looked after and acquiring in the first place. So during this process, we built, uh, a vivarium, uh, hired from England, a veterinarian with deep, deep experience in laboratory animals. And, uh, uh, he put me at the nose plows that were in Toronto working with the deans of medicine generally, and with the Ontario government to develop the, uh, uh, Animal Research Act. Uh, so, uh, uh, my research program was, uh, was a, that was lot of nights and weekends, I'll tell you, because, uh, I spent, I had to spent a lot of time in Toronto. And, uh, as a consequence of this, all, doing all this stuff, um, uh, I became fairly well-known throughout the whole of the university, which again is not a large place, although it was growing very rapidly.

Duncan Sinclair (19:11):
And, uh, the dean of arts and science at that time, John Deutch, had been the principal and he retired. And, uh, and, uh, Ron Watts who had been dean of arts and science, a political studies person, was appointed principal. And they went looking for dean of arts and science and came and picked me. Uh, so I, I, uh, didn't move into medicine, I moved out of medicine, really. I continued to teach. I kept my lab going for about two, three years and I was, I just couldn't do anymore, but I became dean of arts and science. And I did that for nine years, uh, uh, after which I left the university for a time, uh, and became the director of programs, uh, for the Medical Research Council of Canada in Ottawa, where I had been on the MRC selection committees and been a scientific officer there for some years.

Duncan Sinclair (20:15):
And, uh, uh, did that for, uh, about a very short period of time, a little over a year. And then, uh, Ron, uh, retired and David Smith became principal, and recruited me back as a vice principal, uh, which I was basically vice principal, external affairs. It was called, uh, another name, but it was basically external affairs. And then, uh, called another colleague of mine who ran the physical plans. Uh, he, uh, was the vice principal services. Uh, he retired or he changed to another job and there were a bunch of problems that needed to do. And so I switched over and I became vice principal services for two years. Then, uh, I got, uh, asked if I would become vice principal, health sciences and dean of medicine.

D. Butler (21:10):

Duncan Sinclair (21:11):
So I did that. And, and so that's how I got there.

D. Butler (21:15):
(laughs) Since your retirement, have there been any events that stand out in terms of the, um, jobs that you've been asked to do or events-

Duncan Sinclair (21:31):
Well, when, yeah, w- when I retired, uh, in 1996, uh, I was asked prior to my retirement, uh, by the Ontario government to chair Ontario's Health Services Restructuring Commission. Uh, I had been, during the time of being dean, I'd been on the Premiers Council. Uh, at the time of, that the Reconstruction Commission was, uh, started, uh, I was still on the national forum on health. And, uh, so I was playing a role in health policy development. And, uh, so, uh, I was asked if I would take on this restructuring thing, which, uh, uh, is not something, uh, uh, anybody really looks for. Uh, as my wife said, "Okay, you can do it, but if they start burning crosses on the lawn, we're outta here, you know."

D. Butler (22:28):

Duncan Sinclair (22:29):
Uh, so I, that, that was, uh, I did that for four years, uh, from '96 to 2000. Uh, it, it turned out, I mean, it, I did not move to Toronto, uh, deliberately so that I could stay here. Uh, we continued to have house in Kingston and, uh, as I... Otherwise,, if we moved to Toronto, I know I've been at that 24 hours a day, and that's not a good thing to do. So, had a very good CEO, uh, two very good CEOs, one after the other. And, uh, so I did this from Kingston. Uh, put a lot of, uh, a lot of points on via, I can tell you back and forth. But that, that was a very interesting experience, uh, and, and has done some good. It's, uh, the implementation of our directions re- hospital restructuring and our, particularly our recommendations on how to restructure primary care and how to develop a capacity for health information management.

Duncan Sinclair (23:31):
And how to decentralize the operational decision-making out of Toronto, uh, had been proceeding extraordinarily slowly. Very frustrating. But, uh, uh, getting, you know, taking the lead on the restructuring of health services in Ontario, as it turns out, now we're 11 years after we took our sunset, most, well, just about every thing that we recommend it is happening, but it's happening so slowly. It's a little frustrating. But that, that was a great experience. And, uh, it, uh, (laughs) they do, s- some of those experiences do stand out in my mind, I must say.

D. Butler (24:22):
And thinking back, if you had to do it all over again, would you do it any differently?

Duncan Sinclair (24:33):
Uh, I don't think about that. Uh, A, A, you can't do it.

D. Butler (24:34):

Duncan Sinclair (24:34):
It's a waste of time. And, uh, uh, there are lots... I, I just don't think about it. Uh, there are many things that, uh, I continue to be interested in and my wife's interested in, and we, we do those things. Uh, as I said, we're readers, uh, and, uh, I'm still involved with a lot of, uh, boards. Uh, I'm beginning to diminish that. I'm, I'm, uh, a member of what's called the Departmental Audit and Accountability Committee of Health Canada under the Accountability Act. Uh, each department is to have a small, uh, internal audit group that is to deal not only with financial issues, but, uh, effectiveness issues. Uh, and this to be dominated by people who are neither politicians nor bureaucrats. And, uh, so there's a, we, there's a small five member committee and, uh, I'm now finishing my turn there, and I'm not gonna do that again, but that's, that's a, you know... Health Canada spends a ton of your taxpayers money and, uh, uh, being, finding ways to make, uh, governments more accountable for the effective use of taxpayers' money, is a very important thing.

Duncan Sinclair (26:03):
I, I, I'm very keenly interested in that, particularly in healthcare because we frankly are not getting our money's worth. Uh, we, we really aren't. There's a lot of huge amounts of being wasted, health information management. We don't have a capacity to, uh, use our person power or our money effectively, because we really don't know what's going on. It's ridiculous. Uh, you know, with modern information management, uh, and technology right now, uh, the ordinary corner store can interrogate records. It can have a pretty good idea what you had for lunch last Tuesday. Whereas, you know, we spend millions and millions and billions of dollars, uh, on, uh, healthcare services, and we don't have any idea how effective any of that expenditure is. And that's crazy. So, um, uh, I, I have been, for many years, on the board of the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Studies in Toronto, which is the only, only organization in Ontario that has a capacity to interrogate these crummy databases we have, they're not very good.

Duncan Sinclair (27:21):
But ICES has developed techniques to provide credible information to inform the decisions that governments and others have to make. So I, and I think that's very important work. And I'm, I'm, uh, I'm still on that. And, uh, I've just joined the board actually of the, uh, front neck, uh, mental health and addiction services, uh, group here. I, I worked with Michael Kirby in the Senate for some years. Michael Kirby, Senator Kirby, then senator, he's retired, he's resigned now, is the first Canadian Mental Health Commissioner. And, uh, Mike got me involved in writing his, uh, big report on, uh, healthcare, which came out about the same time as the Romano report. Uh, frankly I think, uh, senator's report is much, much better, but I may be biased in it. But in any case, uh, then the second thing that, uh, the committee, senate committee undertook was a review of mental health, which we don't do well.

Duncan Sinclair (28:32):
And, uh, the whole thrust of the report was to do better at it. And, uh, so, uh, uh, Mike is of course doing this from national perspective, but I'm helping here at a local perspective where the rubber hits the road, you know. And, uh, uh, people... And unfortunately, mental illness is poorly understood and addictions understood even less. And, uh, we need to do much better than, than that. I've also joined the board of the, the, uh, Canadian Physiotherapy s- uh, Association. Uh, the president is a friend of mine who I've known for some while, and she asked me to join the board to be, uh, tilt its focus a little more toward public policy. And, uh, so I'm doing that. Uh, I taught my last course last year and finished my last student about two months ago, uh, supervising her research. But, uh, uh, so I, I, there are lots of things to do, lots of things that need to be done and, and to do. And I'm interested in gardening and I do that. And so this is kind of... And I don't look back.

D. Butler (29:55):

Duncan Sinclair (29:55):
There's no point.

D. Butler (29:56):
(laughs) Is there anything else you'd like to add?

Duncan Sinclair (29:59):
No. Well, well, uh, other than to say, uh, uh, we had a 50th reunion at, uh, Guelph. Uh, I enjoyed, uh, uh, seeing the place, which has been totally transformed, uh, from those days when it was, uh, really well like Queens, uh, or even like Cambridge or Presbyterian Hospital, uh, small, smaller, and much more, uh, comfortably humane kind of environment that's in that huge university now become, very, very big. And, and seemingly doing, uh, very well. Uh, I do worry about, uh, um, universities becoming, uh, too much that... Like the students refer going to university now, they say, "Are you still in school?" Well, they shouldn't, uh, be in school. Uh, university's a different thing, uh, should be a very different thing. And our classes are too big and like things that. And I, uh, when we went to Guelph at that 50th reunion, I was struck at, uh, at the size of the place. It's, um, a, for me, at any rate, a little too uncomfortably big.

D. Butler (31:25):
Hmm. Well, I wanted to thank you very much on behalf of the alumni association for your cooperation and willingness to, to do this interview. It's been a pleasure.

Duncan Sinclair (31:36):
And for me. Thank you.

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