They left their Anglican roots behind, as well, and found a spiritual home with the more free-thinking Unitarians.
“They were quite different from other parents,” Ian said. “Especially in the way they educated us. Nothing was off the table, as it were. We received much of our education around the dining table.”
Conversations ranged from details of medical procedures (which most people were not used to hearing while dining), to progressive politics, to Martin Luther King’s civil rights efforts, to animal welfare, to sex education.
Ian remembers the day his father brought home a thermos bucket with a pickled human brain inside because he thought it would be educational for the children. (“Better not mention this to the other kids,” they were told. “They might not understand.”)
In 1954, Dr. Mackenzie closed his potentially lucrative private practice in Victoria to take a lower-paying, far-flung job with the provincial ministry of health. He was stationed in Dawson Creek in the Peace River district of northeastern B.C., a true frontier.
There, he performed life-saving operations on kitchen tables, started immunization programs, treated tuberculosis and helped combat rickets in the native community by providing vitamin D and splints for children with malformed bones.
And he continued to provide contraception for the remote settlers.
“It was a very tough life for these women on those homesteads, and they wanted some help,” he said in the 1979 interview. “[They] were getting tremendous numbers of children and the women were grouching that they were a problem.”
So he introduced a program – “very quietly” – to provide diaphragms, condoms and contraceptive jelly and foam.
“We didn’t advertise it at all,” he said. “Certainly it wasn’t in the annual report of the health unit.”
After Dawson Creek, the family moved to Trail, B.C., where Dr. Mackenzie served as medical health officer for the West Kootenay region and for a time commuted to Nelson as well to serve the Selkirk unit.
There he got a firsthand look at the devastation caused by sulphur dioxide released by the local lead and zinc smelter. So toxic was the cloud that officials blew a whistle before release so that drying laundry could be brought inside to avoid damage. At one time, all the vegetation in the area had died. By the time the Mackenzies arrived, one plant was starting to grow back – poison ivy.
The doctor had long been a nature lover, but this experience helped intensify his desire to help fight environmental degradation. While providing medical care to the local population, he advocated strongly for pollution control, seeking to do something about a nearby chemical plant that was fouling the air.
Eventually Dr. Mackenzie became a public-health officer on Vancouver Island, based in Duncan. He completed a fellowship and became a professor of public health in 1963 at the University of British Columbia, where he was head of the Department of Health Care and Epidemiology from 1973-80.
Students found him an entertaining, engaging and approachable teacher, according to Dr. John Batherwick, who worked on a fellowship with him there. He dealt with serious topics without taking himself too seriously and maintained a welcome sense of humour.
“Cort was one of these easygoing guys who loved his life and loved his family and whatever he happened to be doing at the time.”
Dr. Mackenzie was the president of the Family Planning Association of B.C., and from 1970-74 was director and vice-president of the Family Planning Federation of Canada.
He also served as chairman of the Pollution Control Board of B.C., chairman of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the use of pesticides, and headed a task force on arsenic in Yellowknife.
In 1986, he received the R.D. Defries Award, the Canadian Health Association’s highest honour.
He never rested on his laurels, continuing until the end of his life to advocate for the causes he held dear.
In 1989, as professor emeritus, he warned the government of the Northwest Territories of possible health problems with the proposed Kiggavik Uranium mine in what is now Nunavut.