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Dr. Robert Salter (Hospital For Sick Children)
Dr. Robert Salter (Hospital For Sick Children)

Toronto doctor helped children overcome devastating injuries Add to ...

Dr. Salter then spent a year as a McLaughlin Fellow in orthopedic surgery at the Royal London Hospital. That's where the trainee from Canada took on Sir Reginald Watson-Jones, the world's reigning orthopedic guru. Listening to Dr. Watson-Jones deliver his dictum that the only treatment for fractured limbs was complete, rigid, enforced and prolonged immobilization, Dr. Salter realized intuitively that this was precisely the wrong thing to do. What's more, he said so, to the rising ire of Sir Reginald, a confrontation that Dr. Salter later delighted in relating to generations of his own graduate students. "Over the next 30 years, Salter proved [Sir Reginald]completely wrong," said Dr. Wedge.

Dr. Salter began working at the Hospital for Sick Children in 1955, when Alfred Farmer was head of surgery. At that time, pediatric surgeons were generalists. But Dr. Farmer believed that doctors needed to specialize, if they were going to grow in expertise, and so he insisted that all of the doctors reporting to him had to pick a specialty. William Mustard, who excelled in both cardiac and orthopedic surgery, decided to concentrate on the former, which allowed room for Dr. Salter to become chief of orthopedic surgery at Sick Kids and a professor of surgery at U of T in 1957.

Children are physiologically different from adults and they have a greater proportion of congenital and developmental issues. As well, having grown up in an era when polio was a prevalent childhood illness and dealing with its ravages was a major preoccupation of pediatric surgeons, Dr. Salter realized early on that the correct intervention at the appropriate moment could make a lasting and life-long difference in a child's life. Disgraced theatre impresario Garth Drabinsky, who contracted polio in 1953 when he was only three years old, went under Dr. Salter's knife six times.

Forcing doctors to specialize "was what put Sick Kids ahead of everybody else in the world in pediatric surgery," said Dr. Wedge. "With the advent of sub-specialization at Sick Kids, it rapidly became the principal training place for pediatric orthopedic surgeons around the world." And it was Dr. Salter who led the way, becoming surgeon-in-chief in 1966 and a "university" professor at U of T in 1984, a position held by only 15 scholars at a time. He was innately innovative and a committed researcher who spent years in the lab building models and testing procedures on animals before unveiling new techniques.

In a life filled with accolades and honours, Dr. Salter's curriculum vitae included: surgeon-in-chief; professor and head of orthopedic surgery at U of T; president of the Canadian Orthopedic Association and the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada; fellow of the Royal Society of Canada; member of the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame; companion of the Order of Canada; winner of the Gairdner Award for Medical Science, the FNG Starr Medal of the Canadian Medical Association and the Bristol-Myers/Squibb-Zimmer Award for Distinguished Achievement in Orthopedic Research.

But Dr. Salter wasn't all theory and medical practice. He loved to paint with oils and had such an obsessive interest in heraldry that he designed a coat of arms for most of the institutions and clubs to which he belonged, including the Hospital for Sick Children. He liked to wear a Sherlock-Holmes-style deerstalker cap with a holster under his suit jacket for his pipe while he drove around town in a 1949 Allard sports car with his foot to the floor and the top down, no matter the weather. The car was so sleek and so low slung that he could drive under parking barriers, and he kept it up until he reluctantly pulled the key out of the ignition in the mid 1980s because spare parts had become scarce.

Although he stopped doing surgery at 70, he continued to research, write, attend conferences and see patients even after he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease about three years ago. By early this year, the disease was accelerating and he was having increasing difficulty with his balance. He fell at home early in May and was taken to hospital where he died a few days later. "I always referred to him as my pal and twin," said his brother sadly. "There is no living person who has known and loved him as long as I have."

Dr. Salter leaves his wife, his five children, his twin bother Jack, eight grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and his extended family.

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