Among his many accomplishments, knee-surgery pioneer David MacIntosh saved Veronica Tennant’s knee and doubled the time she spent as a principal dancer for the National Ballet of Canada.
Tennant went to see MacIntosh in 1977, after she injured her knee and was told her ballet career was over.
“I told Dr. MacIntosh I intend to dance again after this operation. He said ‘deal’ and shook my hand. It was my left knee, which is the one needed for the pyrotechnic challenges of Swan Lake, one of the most daunting roles for a ballerina.
“He transformed my life. After my knee operation I danced for another 12 years and the second half of my career was better than the first,” said Tennant, who retired from dancing 1989 and is now a film director and producer living in Toronto.
MacIntosh, who died in his Toronto home on Jan. 12, was one of the first orthopedic surgeons to work in the field now known as sports medicine. Shortly after he started practising medicine in the Medical Arts Building beside the University of Toronto campus in the early 1950s, MacIntosh began working at a clinic for injured athletes at Hart House, where he would give consultations after work. Now known as the David L. MacIntosh Sport Medicine Clinic, it is thought to be the oldest dedicated sports medicine facility in the world.
Back in the clinic’s early days, the most serious sports injury MacIntosh saw there was a torn ACL, or anterior cruciate ligament. At the time, there was no known method for repairing it. It meant the end of athletic life for football players, skiers and ballet dancers.
“In 1957, Dr. MacIntosh invented the diagnostic test known as the pivot-shift test to demonstrate how the knee buckled in the first place. It is still the gold standard test for ACL injury diagnosis,” said Doug Richards, the current director of the MacIntosh clinic. “Shortly after that, he performed the world’s first successful ACL reconstructive surgery. People had been trying to do that since 1870.”
David Lloyd MacIntosh was born on June 6, 1914, in Middle Musquodoboit, N.S., a rural village outside Halifax. It was close enough to the city that one of his first memories was hearing the Halifax explosion in 1917. He was the second-youngest of six children, and his father, a minister in what became the United Church, was a much older man, born in 1868, a year after Confederation. Young David learned to play the organ at the church and claimed he started driving at 12, taking his father from church to church to deliver sermons.
He was always a brilliant student and won the governor-general’s academic gold medal at his high school. He went to Dalhousie University, where his professor encouraged him to become an academic specializing in literature, especially poetry.
“My father always recited poetry aloud, Cicero in Latin and Keats, Shelley and Byron in English,” said his son Doug MacIntosh, a physician living in Peterborough, Ont. “He was particularly fond of Evangeline by Longfellow.”
From the age of nine, he worked part time for Bill Livingstone, a lawyer and businessman in Annapolis Royal. Doing odd jobs in the law office made him think he would become a lawyer. Livingstone, who made cross-country skis from hickory wood, inspired a lifelong love of skiing in MacIntosh that he, in turn, passed along to the rest of his family. His grandson, Davin MacIntosh, of Canmore, Alta., is executive director of Cross Country Canada, which promotes the sport and organizes Olympic-level competitions.
While he decided what to do after university, David taught in a one-room schoolhouse that went from Grades 1 to 8. Although it might sound romantic, he didn’t like it.
“Along with teaching he had to feed the wood stove and the students were not that keen on learning. He used to say he had to stop them crawling out the windows. It cured him of wanting to be a schoolteacher,” said his son Doug.
To finance his premed courses, he took a number of summer jobs, including working on a ship called the Lady Nelson that travelled between Halifax and the Caribbean. It prepared him for wartime service in the navy.
In the end, he studied medicine at Dalhousie University and was the gold medalist in the graduating class of 1939. He was the only young doctor from his year to leave the Maritimes, and he took an internship at Toronto General Hospital. Early in 1941, military recruiters visited the hospital looking for young doctors. MacIntosh volunteered and in two days, he was in uniform and back in Halifax.
Now a surgeon-lieutenant, he was seconded to the Royal Navy and shipped to Britain. At first he worked on experiments into pressures on deep-sea divers. He was a guinea pig in some of the experiments and suffered permanent hearing damage during a dive.
He was then assigned to HMS Philante, the command ship for a convoy group escorting freighters across the Atlantic as far as Iceland. The Philante was a large oceangoing yacht owned by aircraft manufacturer Sir Thomas Sopwith, maker of the First World War Sopwith Camel fighter. The Royal Navy commandeered the ship at the start of the war. Though trips to Iceland and Murmansk were icy and dangerous, the officers’ cabins on the Philante were luxurious compared with the spartan accommodation on the corvettes they served with.
There was, in fact, little for a medical officer to do on the ship, so MacIntosh spent time in his cabin studying his medical books. That gave him a leg up when he returned to university after the war.
In 1944, he went to Ottawa to give medical care to senior officers. During his time there, he met Elaine Dickie, whom he knew from Annapolis Royal. She was teaching at Elmwood School. They married on Boxing Day, 1944.
When the war was over, MacIntosh did further studies at the University of Toronto, then ran a private practice and worked and taught at the university. Many of his medical breakthroughs came from observation and experiment.
“There was an experimental artificial joint prosthesis, made in Denmark, being used as an ashtray in the surgeon’s lounge at the hospital. He cut it in half – that was the innovation – sterilized it and used it to replace the joint surface in the knee,” said his son Doug. “Without that new technique, the knee would have been fused, leaving the patient with no motion for the rest of her life.”
MacIntosh lectured around the world on his orthopedic breakthroughs. He was an active man, and at Toronto General bounded up the stairs with his students following behind.
“He was always hands-on. He taught by showing his students what to do,” said his son Ian. “He was very human with his patients. To him, a patient was a person, not just a knee.”
His home life centred on his passion for the countryside and conservation. He spent a month of every year with his family at a primitive cottage on Lake Massawippi in Quebec. In the 1950s, he bought a 200-acre property at the north end of the Oak Ridges Moraine, northeast of Toronto.
“He kept that property in its natural state. We spent a lot of time there as a family. My father was a real conservationist,” said his daughter Ann Campbell. “He grew Christmas trees and kept a large garden, supplying us with a steady supply of potatoes and tomatoes.”
He worked to re-establish the eastern bluebird in that part of Ontario by putting up special birdhouses across his property. He also planted 15,000 trees to try to shore up the damage done by Hurricane Hazel in 1954. A keen skier, he installed a rope tow on a hill on his property.
MacIntosh retired in 1984, but worked part time until he was 88. He lived at his home in Bennington Heights in Toronto until his death. Not only did he work with his hands in the operating room, but he was also a handyman at home. One of his early projects was building stone steps into the ravine behind his house.
David MacIntosh’s wife, Elaine, died in January, 2006. He leaves his children, Doug, Ian and Ann.