Guarding Canadian health on the front lines

The University of Alberta’s legacy of medical military service traces back to Vimy Ridge.

Photo via University of Alberta Archives, Accession 69–12–075.

One of the most unheralded legacies of the University of Alberta’s medical school is its service to the Canadian Armed Forces. The records trace back to 100 years ago this April, when most of the university’s medical school class of 1914 found themselves embroiled in the Great War on the Western Front in France at the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

At the helm was Major Heber Moshier, the first professor of physiology and pharmacology at the U of A’s medical school. Soon after Moshier’s appointment as chair of the Department of Physiology and the outbreak of the First World War, U of A president Henry Marshall Tory tapped him to raise the university’s contingent of the 11th (Western Universities) Field Ambulance.

When the war broke out in 1914, the U of A had 439 students and a small faculty. By 1918, 484 students and faculty had served in the Canadian Armed Forces, of whom 82 were killed.

Bravery in the face of the enemy

On April 9, 1917, at the Battle of Vimy Ridge, the 11th Western Universities Field Ambulance treated and evacuated injured Canadian troops of the 4th Canadian Division. Promoted to lieutenant-colonel, Moshier and his men continued to treat injured soldiers in the ensuing battles in Northern France and Belgium. LCol Moshier was killed by a high-explosive shell burst Aug. 29, 1918. He was mentioned in dispatches twice for bravery in the face of the enemy, and was awarded the British War Medal, Victory Medal and Canadian Memorial Cross.

Moshier left an indelible mark on the U of A’s history that extends far beyond the battlefield. Before taking military leave in 1916, it was Moshier who recruited James B. Collip. Collip took over Moshier’s courses and later co-discovered insulin along with Frederick Banting, Charles Best and John MacLeod.

Moshier is remembered today through the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry’s prestigious Moshier Memorial Gold Medal, endowed by the Volunteer Overseas Medical Officers’ Association of Edmonton, awarded annually to a graduating medical student with outstanding academic merit.

U of A surgery and military service

The U of A’s Department of Surgery has a remarkable record of military service, beginning with its first clinical professor of surgery, Lieutenant-Colonel Frank Hamilton Mewburn.

During the 1885 North-West Rebellion, LCol Mewburn served at the Base Military Hospital in Winnipeg. He then settled in Lethbridge, where he practised surgery for 27 years. Turned down for military service during the First World War, Mewburn paid his own way to Britain and served as chief of the surgical division of the Canadian Military Hospital in Taplow, England. In 1918, he was awarded the Order of the British Empire.

After the war, Mewburn returned to southern Alberta and was appointed as professor of surgery at the U of A and director of surgical services at the University of Alberta Hospital in 1921. The Mewburn family has a strong medical heritage, with six generations of military doctors in the family.

World War II and Walter C. MacKenzie

Walter C. MacKenzie served in the Royal Canadian Navy throughout the Second World War, eventually earning the rank of surgeon commander. After the war, MacKenzie settled in Edmonton as an independent surgeon and joined the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Medicine.

He served as dean of the faculty from 1959 to 1974, the second longest term in the history of the medical school. In 1978, the U of A Hospital honoured his contributions with the naming of the Walter C. Mackenzie Health Sciences Centre.

Both Mackenzie and Mewburn have student awards named to honour their contributions to the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry. The Mewburn Medal is awarded to a graduating medical student with outstanding merit in surgery, and the Mackenzie Award to the graduating medical student with the most proficient clinical skills.

Critical care in zones of conflict and disaster

Today, physicians from the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry continue to provide service on the front lines in war-torn areas of conflict or communities affected by natural disasters.

Colonel Ronald Brisebois, assistant professor within the Division of General Surgery and adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Critical Care Medicine, served as a full-time surgeon with the Canadian Forces. He has completed tours of duty in the Golan Heights, Turkey, Northern Iraq, Bosnia and Afghanistan.

Lieutenant-Colonel William Patton, alumnus, professor and emergency trauma surgeon at the U of A Hospital, enrolled in the Canadian Armed Forces in 2000. He completed a tour of the Golan Heights with UN peacekeeping forces in 2004 and was deployed to Afghanistan in 2008 as the officer commanding the NATO Role 3 Multinational Medical Unit at Kandahar. His experiences on the front lines led to the development of a curriculum that is now applied in other areas of conflict, as well as disaster preparedness protocols in Canadian civilian hospitals.

Patton continues to be an active reservist. A champion for mental health care within the military, he is the 2016 recipient of the prestigious John McCrae Memorial Medal awarded by the Canadian Medical Association to those who demonstrate “traits such as compassion, self-sacrifice or innovation beyond the call of duty that have greatly benefited the health or welfare of fellow military personnel or civilian populations.”


For almost as long as there’s been a Canada, there’s been a University of Alberta. Over the next year, in honour of Canada’s 150th anniversary, we’re proudly celebrating the people, achievements and ideas that contributed to the making of a confederation.

Originally published at ualberta.ca on April 3, 2017