Psychiatrist Nathan (Nate) Epstein recruited Watters as part of a cadre of Montreal practitioners he took with him in 1967 to the neophyte Faculty of Medicine at McMaster University in Hamilton. One of his first jobs was heading up the clinical unit at St. Joseph’s Hospital, where he “soon got into trouble with the nuns,” according to Bernard Trossman, because “he was an early supporter of Dr. Morgentaler and involved in DRAL and CARAL and a friend of [pro-choice activist] Norma Scarborough.” He began to be interested in community psychiatry and how society influences people and that, according to Trossman, steered him away from psychoanalysis, with its emphasis on the individual.
Watters’s decision to move into couples and sex therapy began at least partly because of his work supervising John Lamont, an Ontario-educated doctor who had spent a year in Philadelphia training as a therapist. Lamont felt he “needed more advice from a senior person” before he started practising on his own.
“He was so well trained,” Lamont recalled in a telephone interview. “He had a multitude of skills from his training at McGill in terms of how to do counselling and therapy and I brought in the issue of sexuality because I had trained in gynecology and obstetrics as well.”
Out of that supervision, the sexuality clinic evolved at McMaster in the mid-1970s. They were soon joined by other key physicians, including May Cohen, a family doctor (and later associate dean of health services at McMaster) whom Watters knew because they were both pro-choice activists and members of DRAL.
“The sexual therapy he did with couples at McMaster involved the idea that religion in general and Christianity specifically were detrimental to people’s health because of guilt,” said Walt Michalsky, a former high-school English teacher who became a close friend through the Human-ist Movement. “Wendell realized that religion was both good and bad depending on how you applied it. It wasn’t religion itself that is so poisonous it is the application of it and the unwillingness to let go of ideas and ideals.”
Becoming a humanist was a natural evolution for a man who loved to debate and believed implicitly in free choice and the strength of ideas. He published many papers on religion and humanism and the polemic, Deadly Doctrine: Health, Illness and Christian God-Talk (1992). As he aged, Watters became fascinated by photography, spending weekends with friends and colleagues on tramps through the countryside shooting landscape, flowers and birds. Watters retired from McMaster in the mid-1980s and two decades later moved with his wife to Penticton, B.C., joining his severely disabled son Derek, who had contracted a virulent form of rheumatoid arthritis in his late teens, and his younger daughter Elizabeth, a family practice physician.
Wendell Watters, who was predeceased by his son Derek, leaves his wife, two daughters and seven grandchildren.