Physician, husband, father, grandfather. Born on June 21, 1923, in Montreal; died on Jan. 31, 2014, in Peterborough, Ont., of complications from a fall, aged 90.
Alec Miller wasn’t simply smart. He was brilliant, with a sharp analytical mind and an amazing memory. This exceptional combination brought him, at the age of 16, to study science at Montreal’s McGill University, where he met and embraced his twin loves: Shirley Mooney and the practice of medicine, two partnerships that would last a lifetime.
After completing his fellowship in internal medicine, Alec took over the practice of a former chief of staff at Montreal General Hospital, and kept an office outside the hospital his entire career. In the 1950s, he began working at Queen Mary Veterans’ Hospital, eventually serving as its chief of medicine.
He later became the first chief of internal medicine at Montreal General, and was also the longest-serving secretary of its department of medicine. In one of the back rows of the hospital’s Osler Amphitheatre is a chair that bears a rare honour: a plaque with Alec’s name on it. It was the chair he faithfully occupied every week at the end of Medical Grand Rounds.
Late in his career, he was appointed medical director of a ward for frail, elderly patients transitioning to long-term care. His appointment was in part a gesture in recognition of his long service to the hospital. What was not expected, however, was the degree to which he embraced the care of these patients. He hired the best and brightest clinicians to work there and partnered with Standard Life Assurance Company of Canada, where he worked as a consultant, to “adopt” the ward, refurbishing and supporting it with a steady stream of volunteers.
Alec was born to Scottish immigrant parents and grew up in Côte-Saint-Paul/Ville-Émard, one of Montreal’s blue-collar neighbourhoods. Although his career path took him to the top of the hill in affluent Westmount, he never forgot his roots, forever regaling everyone with stories about the “hood.”
I know of no one who cultivated warmer, or longer lasting, friendships. Whether you were a CEO or janitor, you had Alec’s respect. He did not stand on pomp and ceremony and did not want to be called “Doctor.” He insisted that you call him “Doc.” And Doc it was.
Doc and Shirley had three sons, Bruce, Fraser and Colin. Every Friday at 7 p.m., they would bundle the boys into the car and head north to Lac Brûlé in the Laurentians, where the kids learned how to swim, fish and operate a motor boat, and where eight grandchildren had their first ride on a lawn tractor and learned to ski.
Doc’s trusty black bag was always at his side. Fraser, now a physician himself, recalls being six years old and accompanying his dad on summertime rounds in the lakeside communities of Lac Brûlé. No student ever had a better start to a medical education.
The Miller home was always open. I was a Liberal member of the National Assembly, and my visits were often late at night. Shirley would put something on the stove while Alec and I discussed politics. In the fall of 1976, I stood for re-election, this time in the riding of Westmount. I asked Doc to act as my official agent. He agreed, knowing we would capture the riding but lose the province. On Nov. 15, 1976, René Lévesque’s Parti Québécois was swept to power. Doc had a front-row seat, witnessing the Canadian political landscape change forever.
In 2010, he and Shirley moved to Peterborough, Ont., to be closer to two children and their families. Last October, Alec’s cherished wife passed away after 64 years of marriage. A few months later, he fell. Officially, his death was due to complications of that fall. But we all know Doc really died of a broken heart.
George Springate is a long-time friend of Doc.