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Stroke-prevention expert Dr. Henry Barnett. (David Love)
Stroke-prevention expert Dr. Henry Barnett. (David Love)

OBITUARY

Neurologist Henry Barnett proved Aspirin prevents strokes Add to ...

In the early 1970s, when doctors had limited knowledge about the treatment and prevention of strokes, neurologist Henry Barnett led groundbreaking medical studies that challenged the medical practices of the day. His first, the now-famous Canadian Aspirin Trial, proved that acetylsalicylic acid (ASA), which people had been using for 70 years to treat fevers, had the unintended benefit of preventing strokes. The discovery gave doctors a powerful new treatment that is still used widely today.

“Our colleagues thought it was unlikely that a drug like Aspirin … something that was a common, ordinary thing out of the bathroom medicine cabinet could prevent strokes and heart attacks,” Dr. Barnett, known to all as Barney, once said of his early research.

He went on to conduct several other influential trials, in particular an international study, supported by the National Institutes of Health in the United States, of a common post-stroke brain surgery called extracranial-intracranial bypass. Controversially, Dr. Barnett’s data showed the procedure worked only in some patients. “There was an uproar,” Dr. Barnett said later in a video shot by the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame, into which he was inducted in 1995, as this was a “billion-dollar business.”

“He got push back,” says John Riley, a friend and emeritus science director of the Nature Conservancy of Canada. “He didn’t mind it all. In fact, it made his day.”

He led another headline-worthy trial in 1991 that confirmed that carotid endarterectomy, a preventive surgery, helps reduce strokes.

In 1986, Dr. Barnett helped found the Robarts Research Institute (now part of Western University), and was key in building it into an internationally respected centre for medical research.

Just as important as the outcomes of his studies, Dr. Barnett was an outspoken proponent of evidence-based medicine. He helped change how doctors did their jobs in an array of disciplines. “My years as a busy consultant neurologist led me to believe that we were doing a lot of things that we didn’t know about; that were making a lot of things up from hope and conjecture,” Dr. Barnett said in the Hall of Fame video.

“We use the word icon too much. Here’s a person it applies to,” says Dr. Michael Strong, dean of the Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry at Western University, a scientist at Robarts and a former student of Dr. Barnett. He cites his former mentor’s pioneering research on spinal-cord disorders and fluid-filled cavities in the spinal cord, which can grow and cause serious complications. “He did amazing work in the days before CT scans and MRIs,” Dr. Strong says.

Dr. Barnett loved nature, particularly birds. (Dr. Neil Watters, a medical school classmate of Dr. Barnett’s, says it was a long-standing joke that a medical centre would have a better chance of participating in one of Barney’s trials if it was close to a bird sanctuary.) He found something of a second career as a conservationist, securing land for the NCC in the Happy Valley Forest in King, Ont., where he lived during his retirement. “He cajoled, encouraged, begged and enticed everybody he knew in the area,” Mr. Riley says. His advocacy on behalf of the NCC helped it to go from owning little in Happy Valley – a deciduous forest that shelters numerous wildlife species, including rare birds – to now controlling 775 acres in the area. Part of that was 75 acres Dr. Barnett sold to the NCC, under market rate, in 2013.

Dr. Barnett, who died on Oct. 20 at age 94, was intense: He questioned assumptions and expected a great deal of his students, peers and family members. “He was a force to the end,” says his eldest daughter, Ann Love. “He was a remarkable man, he could be difficult. He was strong; he was wonderful.”

Just five years ago, the day before Dr. Strong went to visit his old prof, Dr. Barnett sent an e-mail containing his lengthy writings on Happy Valley. Terrified he’d be grilled on the contents, Dr. Strong waded through the 80 or so pages of text. “Here I am, dean of a medical school, and I’m scared to death he’s going to ask me questions,” Dr. Strong recalls. “When you train with Barney, it stays with you the rest of your life.” (And Barney did ask.)

Henry Joseph Macaulay Barnett was born Feb. 10, 1922, in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, the son of Canon Thomas Barnett, an Anglican clergyman, and his wife, the former Sadie Macaulay. Henry was the third born in what would grow to a family of seven children. They moved to Toronto when he was three, his father taking on a parish there.

As a child, young Henry roamed the still-wild fringes of Toronto and explored nature at the family cottage at Roches Point on Lake Simcoe. With so many young children in the family, his main memory of the place was the smell of diapers being boiled on the kitchen stove. One day, at age 12, while looking for birds in Toronto’s Ashbridge’s Marsh, he met Jim Baillie, borrowed his binoculars and learned from him the name of birds such as the hoary redpoll. Mr. Baillie would later become a well-known ornithologist at the Royal Ontario Museum. The two regularly bird-watched together and stayed friends until Mr. Baillie’s death in 1970.

These explorations convinced young Henry, who went to the University of Toronto Schools, that he wanted to study biology, but his father insisted he pursue something more practical and lucrative, so he enrolled in medicine at the University of Toronto in 1939; his first day of school coincided with the start of the Second World War.

His leadership skills were readily apparent and he was elected class president in his second year, and reprised the role for the next two. “He remained our class president for the next 50 years or so,” Dr. Watters jokes. He graduated in 1944, his yearbook calling him a “collector of canaries and a cooker of colossal deals.” A professor suggested he specialize in the emerging field of neurology.

Dr. Barnett completed his junior internship at the Toronto General Hospital, where he met a student nurse named Kathleen Gourlay, whom he married in 1946. He trained in neurology in Toronto, did additional training in the U.K. and joined the Toronto General in 1952. He became chief of the division of neurology at Sunnybrook hospital in 1966.

But the Toronto medical community still lumped neurology with psychiatry and Dr. Barnett considered that a wrong-headed approach. In 1969, his neurosurgeon friend Dr. Charles Drake invited him to the University of Western Ontario (now Western University) to found its Department of Clinical Neurological Sciences, which would combine neurology and neurosurgery. Dr. Barnett became director in 1974 and began doing some of his most high-profile work, including the Aspirin trial.

The research was done at centres across the country and Dr. Barnett visited each and every one – and did the same later for his international studies. “He checked the figures himself and made sure it was all being done with complete accuracy,” Dr. Watters says. “Nobody was ever able to refute him. His figures were carefully checked.”

As a teacher, he was equally demanding, ensuring his students had exacting clinical skills, argued for a diagnosis with facts in hand and were precise with their data. “When you trained with Barney, you were expected to be the best. You could go anywhere in North America you wanted to after that,” Dr. Strong says.

In 1986, he played a key role in founding Robarts, and acted as its first scientific director. It soon gained an international reputation and had the first magnetic resonance imaging machine in the country.

Away from Western, Dr. Barnett was founding president of the Canadian Stroke Society starting in 1970 and edited the journal Stroke from 1981 to 1986. He published hundreds of journal articles and co-authored a seminal textbook on strokes.

He retired in 1999 and moved from London to the family’s weekend home in Happy Valley – he bought the land in 1959 for $104 an acre – but stayed involved with Robarts for many years after, and kept writing. His wife, Kay, died in 2006. In 2010, Dr. Barnett published a humorous six-part memoir on his life in medicine and research for the Canadian Journal of Neurological Sciences. In recent years, he published his writings on Happy Valley as a blog for the NCC.

Dr. Barnett was named a companion of the Order of Canada in 2003 and received numerous other honours during his lifetime, including the Royal Bank Award, the Killam Prize, the F.N.G. Starr Medal from the Canadian Medical Association and the Karolinska Stroke Award.

Barney and Kay had four children and prioritized family time on weekends at Happy Valley. When he travelled for work, he often took the family. There was seldom enough proper beds, but the kids would sleep on cots or the floor. Ms. Love recalls visiting Vancouver and her dad taking the family by car to Banff on the logging roads so they could see more wildlife. They also visited the Banff dump – to see birds.

Years later, he took each of his grandchildren on a work trip. After the conference or meetings were done, he’d take them not to tourist sites but “somewhere weird and remarkable to see wildlife,” Ms. Love recalls.

As a doctor, he is remembered as a forward thinker and a force. At home and on the land, he was equally intense, with a great sense of humour and endless curiosity. “His eyes would gleam when he was onto something new,” Mr. Riley recalls. “Whether it was something medical or a new bird, he was always taking up a cause.”

Dr. Henry Barnett leaves his siblings Doug Barnett and Mary Ranger; children, Ann Love, Will Barnett, Jane Drake and Ian Barnett; and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

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