Doctor, peace activist, environmentalist. Born on Jan. 26, 1917, in Peace River, Alta.; died on Dec. 1, 2013, on Mayne Island, B.C., of natural causes, aged 96.
Edwin was born in Peace River, Alta., the second of five children of Margaret and Frank Abbott, an Anglican clergyman. In 1921 they moved to Southern Ontario, where Edwin grew up helping his father with church services, frequently travelling to rural parish churches by sleigh or buggy.
He studied philosophy at the University of Toronto and then, intending to follow in his father’s footsteps, theology at Wycliffe College. But before completing his theology degree, he decided to enter medical school. He often quipped that he had decided to “practise rather than preach.” In 1940, in his first year, he met his life partner, Vivien Duggan, another first-year medical student.
Ed was radical in his belief in the equality of people and the transforming power of love. He came early to the belief that one cannot kill others and simultaneously follow the teachings of Jesus. In 1943 the university decided that male medical students must join the officer corps and don uniform in support of the war effort. Ed declared his conscientious objection to military service, and was ejected from medical school for being a pacifist.
Initially he was sent to do alternative service, working on the Trans-Canada Highway at Montreal River, Ont. Years later he wrote, “As I travelled northward, leaving behind medicine and loved ones, my heart was light. I had the assurance that I had been given the strength to follow the light given me.” He later joined the Friends Ambulance Unit, a team of Quaker conscientious objectors who were sent to provide medical relief in war-torn China. This was his first taste of world service work.
At war’s end, he returned to Toronto, married Vivien and finished his medical training. In 1952, they joined the Religious Society of Friends, commonly known as the Quakers. Rather than accepting the privileges offered by a conventional medical practice, they volunteered with Quakers to work in rural India. In addition to general medicine, their focus on public health (Ed) and pediatrics (Vivien) equipped them well to run a medical clinic and work to improve public health. Ed pioneered simple, inexpensive methods for villagers to dig wells for clean water, for example, and invented a water-seal latrine to cut the spread of disease.
After 12 years in India they returned to Ontario, as the eldest of their five children needed higher-level schooling. Ed served as the medical officer of health for Scarborough for about 15 years, before retiring from medical practice. He then turned his attention to designing and building a passive solar home in Rowanwood, Ont., their home for the next 32 years.
A lifelong crusader for peace, Ed’s actions spoke louder than words, from harbouring American draft dodgers during the Vietnam War to attending countless vigils for peace. He could analyze a charged situation and diffuse it with wisdom and gentle humour. With Vivien and other trained facilitators, he worked in the highly effective Alternatives to Violence Project, helping prisoners to learn less destructive ways of relating to others.
Ed had a passion for preserving the environment and worked to curb waste and excess consumption long before it was fashionable. He believed that if we can eliminate the tragic human, financial and environmental waste of war and share our resources more fairly, all humanity would benefit.
His three sons and two daughters, 13 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren are blessed to have a model of a life so well lived. Ed was fully alive at the very end, and departed this life smiling reassuringly at his beloved family, surrounding him at his daughter’s home on Mayne Island. The world is a better place because of the life he shared so generously.
Mark Abbott is Ed’s son.