The first woman to head the Children’s Hospital in Winnipeg, Agnes Bishop was also the first woman to be selected by the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada to be its president. But the renowned pediatrician, a specialist in hematology and oncology, turned down the college’s offer when she got a call in 1994 from then-prime minister Jean Chrétien asking her to head the Atomic Energy Control Board and redefine the role of Canada’s nuclear regulator.
After completing her medical degree at Dalhousie University and starting her pediatric residency in Halifax, Dr. Bishop moved to Winnipeg in 1966 to do a fellowship in hematology. Before long she found herself as the only pediatric oncologist in the province and for the next decade virtually lived at the children’s hospital.
“For a time she did it all, 24/7,” Sara Israels, a Winnipeg pediatric oncologist/hematologist said of her former colleague, who died on May 19 in Winnipeg at the age of 75.
Dr. Bishop, or “Aggie” as she was known, not only led the hospital’s section of pediatric hematology/oncology, but later became a professor at the University of Manitoba and head of its department of pediatrics in 1985. She remained head of the Children’s Hospital until 1994.
As a medical student in Winnipeg in the 1970s, Dr. Israels couldn’t wait for the time she spent with Dr. Bishop every week during her clinical rounds. “She was such a completely engaged teacher. She was so inspiring,” Dr. Israels said.
“The most important thing she told me is ‘you have to be honest with people. Not telling [the truth] is worse,’” Dr. Israels recalled. “She was always kind, but she was always direct.”
Fewer children survived cancer during the 1970s and 1980s, and Dr. Bishop’s work was often exhausting and emotionally draining. Still, she loved what she did and always said, “It’s all about the kids.”
“She really was so focused on the child and the family, ensuring that they got the support they needed.”
Recognizing that caring for children with cancer and their families required more than medical treatment, Dr. Bishop created a collaborative team at the hospital comprising doctors, social workers, nurses, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, spiritual care advisers and others. A new concept at the time, multidisciplinary teams are now considered standard care.
“She was a great advocate,” Dr. Israels said. “When she felt strongly about something, you heard about it.”
Agnes Bishop was born in 1938 in Chipman, N.B., where her father, Gordon, ran a “five and dime” store. She studied science at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S., followed by medicine at Dalhousie. To help pay for her education, she became a cadet with the Royal Canadian Air Force. Her older brother, Art, studied medicine at the same time and went on to practise in Texas.
A great storyteller who loved to laugh and tell obscure medical jokes, Dr. Bishop could recount the exact moment she decided to work with children rather than adults. As an intern in Halifax one summer, she heard an American father complain that his child was still being cared for in the hallway of the emergency department. Another little boy, whose father ran a hotel in the area, piped up, “Don’t you know you have to book ahead in the tourist season?”
Dr. Bishop had the knack for getting sick children to tell her what their real symptoms were when everyone else had failed, one colleague noted. “She could connect with [kids] so quick,” said her best friend, Lesley Degner. “Some people said she could have been a magician or a comedian.”
Squeezing water from a knife was one of the magic tricks she would employ to earn the trust of a frightened child. She also had a string trick and a long name, about 100 syllables long, that she would say to distract a child while she doing an examination.
Generous, sometimes to a fault, Dr. Bishop secretly paid for the funerals of some of her young patients when their parents couldn’t. But she was also known to be tough, hard working and have high expectations of others. “‘She didn’t suffer fools gladly’ would be an understatement,” Ms. Degner said.
Winnipeg lawyer Rick Adams remembers the support he received from Dr. Bishop when he led the charge to start a Ronald McDonald House in the city in 1980. “I was told the be-all and end-all at the Children’s Hospital was Aggie and she was,” he said. “She was a tough lady, but fair.”
Mr. Adams also recalled how they would meet in the hospital cafeteria to chat over coffee and a cigarette; Export A was her brand.
In 1994, Dr. Bishop’s career changed course when she was called by Mr. Chrétien, asking her to become president of the Atomic Energy Control Board (AECB), for which she had previously been a board member. With her medical expertise, he said, she was ideal for the post because she could reassure Canadians that health and safety were priorities for the nuclear industry.
Having dreamed of a career in the public service, although as a diplomat, she took the position. Her term as president of the AECB was one of the most transformative in its history. She led its transition to becoming the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.
“Safety had to be first and foremost,” said Alan Graham, a retired New Brunswick politician who sat on the commission’s board. “Because she was a medical doctor and had a prominent reputation, it brought a lot of credibility to the commission.”
Dr. Bishop redefined the role of the nuclear regulator and oversaw the complete restructuring of Canada’s nuclear regulatory practices. At the turn of the millennium, during the Y2K paranoia, she also had to ensure that the Canadian nuclear sector was prepared and that the public knew they were safe.
During her time as president, she was known to have two books. The first book had a photo of each employee and their name beside each photo. The second book had the same photos, but without the names. Along with one-on-one meetings with all her employees, she used the books to learn the names of each person in the commission.
After seven busy years as president, which included non-stop international travel, she was happy to return to Winnipeg. Relieved not to have to fly any more, she enjoyed being at her home with her books and stacks of magazines, from the London Review of Books to The Walrus to The Atlantic.
Although she loved working with children, Dr. Bishop chose not to become a mother. Recognizing that her demanding work schedule was not conducive to raising children, she instead enjoyed her numerous nieces and nephews.
Dr. Bishop loved wine and didn’t let her own battle with cancer stop her from enjoying a good French Bordeaux. She would show up at her hematologist’s office for an appointment wanting to know how much longer he expected her to live. “Can I order more wine?” she would ask.
Like so many of her young patients, she died of leukemia. During her treatment, she often thought of those children. “If they could go through this, then I can too,” she told friends.
Predeceased by brothers Gene and Arthur, Dr. Bishop leaves her sister, Doris, several nieces and nephews and close friends.
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