Robert Bruce Salter came from Loyalist stock on both sides of his family. His father, Lewis Salter, from Chatham, N.B., was the manager of the Bank of Nova Scotia in Liverpool, N.S., the home town of Katherine Cowie. After he wooed and wed her, they moved to Stratford, Ont., where he headed up the local BNS branch. There the Salters had three sons, Douglas Campbell, (who died in 1993) and fraternal twins, Robert Bruce and Andrew Jack, who were born on Dec. 15, 1924.
Almost from birth, Bob Salter seemed destined to care for others, an ambition nurtured by his mother, a woman he once described as shy, loyal, kind and "deeply religious, in the best sense." Another huge influence was David Smith, the family physician. At age 6, Bob told his twin brother that he wanted to be a doctor, but only "if he could be as good, or better than Dr. Smith," recalled Jack Salter. 'He worshipped him."
When the boys were 9, Jack became seriously ill with rheumatic fever; in those pre-antibiotic days, the treatment was complete bed rest for a year. "Bob taught me all during the summer holidays and I wrote the exams so that when I was well and able to go back to school I could stay in the same room with him," Jack said. "That was very important to us."
In the mid-1930s, Lewis Salter embarked on a serious career change when he quit the bank to launch an orange-juice business with a partner. The family moved to North Toronto and the three boys transferred from Romeo Public School in Stratford to Lawrence Park Collegiate. Even then, Bob was interested in research. When he was 16, he brought home a dead monkey from the Connaught Medical Labs. "I went into the basement and there was Dr. Bob dissecting the poor little monkey, which was staring up at the ceiling," said his brother. "I honestly believe that is how he became fascinated with bone surgery, because he ended up with the skeleton of the monkey and he could see how the various joints functioned."
After high school, Jack went into the navy and Bob entered a six-year medical program at the University of Toronto, the first time in their lives that the twins had taken divergent paths. Bob was about 5 feet 10 and of average build, but he was very strong, athletic, competitive and driven. "When he played football and hockey, if he tackled or body-checked you, you would beg to live for another day," said his brother. "He played to win."
During school breaks, Bob worked as a labourer and truck driver to earn his tuition, but in his last two years of medical school he combined his religious and medical vocations by spending his summers at the Grenfell Mission, an organization that had been established by medical missionary Wilfred Grenfell in the 1890s to bring medical and social services to remote communities in northern Newfoundland and Labrador. The Grenfell Mission was both a training and a testing ground for his dream to become a missionary doctor in India, China or Africa.
Back in Toronto in 1947 for his final year at U of T, he met Robina McGee, a community-health student. She had done field work on a scholarship in Copper Cliff, a community near Sudbury in Northern Ontario, and was hoping to work for the Grenfell Mission, so "we united our paths," she said, after he completed his internship year. "I didn't know whether it was a proposal or a job description he was offering me," she joked about what turned out to be more than 60 years of marriage, community service and the rearing of five children.
The day after their wedding on July 3, 1948, the Salters left for the Grenfell Medical Mission at St. Anthony on the northern peninsula of Newfoundland, doing "whatever needed to be done," in what "Bob always called 'our two-year honeymoon,'" she said. Then, with a baby on the way, turmoil in post-Communist revolution China and in India in the aftermath of Partition, the Salters agreed to put aside his dream of working in a missionary field.
Instead, he enrolled in postgraduate training under W.E. Gallie, the legendary surgeon and educator who radically overhauled surgical education at U of T. Dr. Gallie believed students should be exposed to a variety of disciplines before specializing and that the coveted position of chief resident should rotate among senior residents so each would have the experience of being "in charge" in a supervised setting before heading off into the "real" world.