There’s a tendency to think of Fraser Mustard as a one-note advocate for early childhood education. In fact, his crusade to give all children a good start began late in his long and varied career. He began at a laboratory bench as a research hematologist working on cardiovascular disease – a medical problem primarily connected with old age – and moved outward to embrace social, economic, educational and environmental studies. That knowledge and experience drew him back to the earliest stages of life as the key intervention point to maximize human development.
Mustard came to believe that health care was but a small part of the answer in producing healthy, productive and engaged citizens. In the endless nurture-versus-nature debate, he came down solidly on the side of nurture, beginning with conception. Besides high-quality care for pregnant women, he advocated for comprehensive and universal preschool education. One week after his death from cancer, at the age of 84, on Nov. 16, the third volume of the massive Early Years Study that he had pioneered and spearheaded was released.
But early childhood education was far from his only interest. He was the founding chair of the innovative department of medicine at McMaster University, then the founding president of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research – essentially an international research centre without walls – and the inaugural president of CIFAR’s The Founders Network.
A man in whom intellectual curiosity raged like a virus, Mustard approached everything in life as a problem to solve, an educational insight that he gleaned as a boy of 11 in the late 1930s, according to his colleague Marian A. Packham in her short biography, Connections and Careers. He wanted to attend the academically elite University of Toronto Schools, but first he had to qualify for admission. Would a beaver build its dam curved upstream or downstream was one of the questions on the stiff entrance exam. Fortunately, the urban kid knew the answer from playing with his rural cousins on family farms northwest of Toronto on summer vacations and on an unscheduled holiday when Toronto schools were closed during the polio epidemic of 1937.
Risk-taking and self-confidence also coursed through his veins. He loved start-ups, institutions where he could establish the parameters and set the direction. “He was an intellectual entrepreneur,” said Chaviva Hosek, president of CIFAR, “and boy did he have guts.”
The idea for a Canadian-based international research centre had been around for a couple of decades but nobody wanted, in a country of regions, to pin it down structurally in a particular location. Before computerized networks and list serves, Mustard’s genius was to create a way for researchers from various disciplines to work collaboratively on large and wide-ranging projects without putting money into bricks and mortar or stealing star academics from their home institutions.
“He imagined into being an institution that still is leading the way in bringing people together to work on complex issues and to take intellectual risks together,” said Hosek. “He invented that and he made it happen for the first 14 years of its life.”
James Fraser Mustard was born in Toronto on Oct. 16, 1927. His father, Alan Alexander Mustard, was a project manager in the construction business, and his mother, Jean Ann (née Oldham) Mustard was a nurse. During the Depression his father’s business failed and his mother went back to nursing to help support the family.
After Whitney Public School, Mustard went to UTS, graduating in 1946 with the Nesbitt Silver Medal for all around achievement. By then he knew he wanted to go into medicine. Spots were hard to find, however, because the entrance ranks had been swelled by a torrent of veterans wanting to resume their interrupted educations. Mustard spent a year in honours science before switching to medicine.