Cortlandt Mackenzie had survived a world war and medical school. But when a woman arrived at his brand-new doctor’s office in Victoria asking about birth control, he was stumped.
He knew what a diaphragm was, but because contraception was never mentioned in his medical training at Queen’s University, the young doctor wasn’t quite sure how to go about prescribing one. Luckily, his nurse had one on hand and he was able to duck into the back office to read the instructions that came in the box.
That was the early 1950s, when it was a criminal offence to sell or advertise contraception in Canada. Birth control was not fully legalized until 1969.
But that was Cort Mackenzie, a doctor and public health officer who wanted to help his patients any way he could and was way ahead of his time when it came to reproductive choice for women.
Discussing abortion, though, was a more serious matter.
“You couldn’t do much,” he explained in a 1979 interview about the history of birth control in Canada. “You could give broad hints, and more or less tell people that if they went and did anything about it and got into trouble to be sure to get back to you right away.
“This was often quite a tragedy in my private practice.”
Dr. Mackenzie, who died on May 16 at the age of 92, went on to champion family planning throughout his career. He was an advocate for the environment, too, long before it became fashionable. And he was a pioneer in understanding what is now called the determinants of health – the environmental, socioeconomic, nutritional and lifestyle factors that broaden the study of wellness beyond the practice of traditional medicine.
He visited and taught around the world – in places such as Russia, Cuba, Pakistan, India and Australia – and was key in getting the medical establishment to look beyond Canada.
“He had an eclectic view of the world,” said John Blatherwick, retired chief medical officer for Vancouver. “The multiple factors that came down to determining a person’s health is what made Cort tick.”
Cortlandt John Gordon Mackenzie was born into the lap of the Toronto establishment on Sept. 6, 1920, the only child of Henry J.G. Mackenzie and Marjorie (nee Campbell). He was in the lineage of a waning fur-trading fortune amassed by a Mackenzie ancestor who had come to Canada after the Napoleonic wars, listing his occupation as “gentleman.”
Marjorie was a successful stage actress in London and New York before she became a mother.
Young Cort was raised in what his son Ian describes as “gentile poverty” on Toronto’s posh Old Forest Hill Road, as his parents ended up making their living by the pen. His father wrote children’s books (though he was said to have not been particularly fond of children); his mother travel books and newspaper articles.
Cort attended Upper Canada College – doing “very badly” as he later put it, but “surviving.”
He studied for a year, 1939, at Queen’s University before serving in the war, first in the army, then as an executive officer in the navy, where he ended up as a corvette captain.
He was fond of telling how his convoy ship crossed the Atlantic equipped with wooden guns, as the real artillery was to be installed in Britain.
After the war, in 1945, he married Jean Barker, the daughter of William (Billy) Barker, who earned a Victoria Cross in the First World War, and was famous as Canada’s – indeed, the British Empire’s – most-decorated war hero. Son Alec was born in 1949; Ian in 1950.
After graduating from Queen’s medical school in 1951, Dr. Mackenzie defied familial expectations that he would specialize and set up a private practice in Toronto, instead taking his young family to freer pastures on the West Coast.
A third son, David, was born in 1952.
“My parents ran away from Toronto society and went as far away as they could, which was British Columbia, and they became about as bohemian as you could get in the 1950s,” Ian said. “They supported all sorts of liberal causes.”