Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Dwight Peretz. Courtesy of the Family.Courtesy of the Family

Dr. Dwight Peretz piled up many accomplishments during his distinguished medical career, but nothing quite topped his wartime exploits as a young Allied undercover courier in Japanese-occupied Shanghai. Beginning when he was 12 and continuing off and on for 18 months, he was used to carry messages past Japanese guard posts to a secret radio operator for transmission to American intelligence officers. The dispatches contained information about Japanese ship movements that helped pinpoint bombing raids and enable safe nighttime mining of the harbour.

They were given to young Dwight by his stepfather, Arthur Peretz, an Allied spy who would observe Japanese naval ships from his office on an upper floor of the Shanghai General Hospital that provided a perfect view of the port. From the hospital, Dwight would head off on his bicycle to deliver messages tucked inside his school bag. When he once toppled off his bike during a downpour right in front of a Japanese sentry, the sentry helped the boy remount and smilingly handed him his school bag.

“I was scared all the time, because having intelligence papers on your person was a first-class, express ticket into [prison],” he admitted in his memoirs of that unforgettable time, Born in the Lap of the Dragon. “At the very least, Arthur and my mother would have been killed. But that’s what courage is, doing something even though you’re scared.”

He was chosen for the hazardous job because children were invisible, or at least not taken seriously by the Japanese occupiers. Despite the risk, he didn’t consider refusing. It was an adventure. Later in life, Dr. Peretz said that and other youthful Shanghai experiences were formative in his subsequent career. “They made me who I am.”

It was an outstanding career for Dr. Peretz, who died May 27 at the age of 89. For most of it, he was an eminent cardiologist at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver, part of the hospital’s evolution from a small-ish cottage hospital into a major centre for cardiology and heart surgery in the 1960s. As part of the drive, Dr. Peretz set up what is believed to be the first intensive-care unit in Canada, designed to provide specialized care for patients experiencing postoperative trauma. He subsequently added a specialized Coronary Care Unit in a former nuns’ chapel at the Catholic hospital. Mortality rates plummeted.

He was born Dwight Irving Gregg on Feb. 16, 1931, in Shanghai, the younger son of Gwendoline and Robert Gregg, chief engineer of Standard Oil’s China operations. His mother divorced Mr. Gregg in 1940 to marry Arthur Peretz, a charismatic, young physician from Vienna. Dwight grew very close to his stepfather, eventually taking his last name. In a remarkable coincidence, the younger Dr. Peretz and well-known former federal cabinet minister Pat Carney, also born in Shanghai, wound up as neighbours on one of B.C.’s Gulf Islands. Both were born in the Shanghai Country Hospital, a mere four years apart. “I think they were sailing back to Shanghai, just as my family was getting ready to leave” Ms. Carney said. “Our ships just missed each other.” Dwight’s family remained in Shanghai throughout the Japanese occupation until 1946.

The city’s long, glamorous run as the “Paris of the East” – as it was known to its tens of thousands of international residents – came to an end with the attack on Pearl Harbor. Plunged into war with the Allies, Japan tightened its occupation. Dwight and his British-born mother were twice sent to Japanese internment camps for Westerners. Both times, his stepfather managed to pull strings to get them released, thanks to the German citizenship he held after the annexation of his native Austria.

Japan’s surrender in 1945 did not end the war’s impact on Dwight, then 14. With supplies still scarce, the U.S. Air Force organized a drop of 150-kilogram food canisters. But the planes flew too low for the parachutes to properly unfurl before the heavy canisters hit the ground at high speed. One fell directly on Dwight’s friend as the two watched the drop, killing him instantly. The grieving youth cut a patch from the parachute, which he framed and kept for the rest of his life.

Around the same time, Dwight noticed two young Japanese soldiers, who had not yet been de-armed, taking aim at the backs of two Free French intelligence officers in the distance. Rather than firing his Colt .45 at the soldiers, he unleashed several shots into the air and scared them off. The French government subsequently awarded him a medal for saving their officers.

“I’m glad I fired into the air [and not at them],” Dr. Peretz reflected in his memoirs. “My life has been about prolonging and improving lives, not taking them.”

That led him to medicine. His family having settled in West Vancouver, he was a member of the first graduating class of the University of British Columbia’s newly established medical school in 1954. Recently married to Susan Schaffer, whom he met during his second crack at a first-year UBC English class (“There wasn’t a lot of grammar or punctuation taught in the Japanese internment camps,” he joked to his sons), and with no means to pursue further study, he went into general practice with his stepfather.

As a teenager, Dwight had shown the same resourcefulness he demonstrated in Shanghai by building a solid log cabin with a friend on Hollyburn Mountain above West Vancouver, despite never having held an axe in his hand before. It still stands as one of Hollyburn’s heritage cabins.

Eventually, he made it to McGill University, where he specialized in the developing field of cardiology. Dr. Peretz returned to Vancouver in 1965, hired by the trailblazing Doris Kavanagh-Gray to join her in the new cardiology division she headed at St. Paul’s Hospital. A year later, he set up its landmark 10-bed intensive-care unit, initially for patients recovering from open-heart surgery, which was increasingly common at the hospital.

“It worked really well right off the bat,” Dr. Kavanagh-Gray recalled. Although ICUs have long been a staple of hospital care, they were new at the time. “People came from around the world to see how we had done it,” Dr. Peretz told a hospital historian. Under Dr. Peretz’s direction, the ICU soon branched off into the even more specialized coronary-care unit. The mortality rate for heart-attack patients who had previously been admitted to general care quickly dropped in half, from 30 per cent to 15.2 per cent, when they were treated in Dr. Peretz’s innovative CCU.

He remained head of the CCU for many years, bolstering his expertise with further study, while lecturing and teaching across Canada and internationally. Those ventures included a return to Shanghai in the early 1980s, instructing medical students in the same hospital where he was born.

Dr. Peretz retired at his wife’s behest in 1998. According to his son Geoffrey: “She told him: ‘Dwight, it’s time to stop learning. You’ve got more letters after your name than you’ve got in it.” In 2005, he became one of the few Canadians honoured as a Master of the American College of Physicians for his long, searching career as a cardiologist. In 2012, he was awarded a Queen’s Diamond Jubilee medal for his medical contributions.

Dr. Peretz was predeceased by his wife and older brother, Godfrey. He leaves his sons, Geoffrey and Alan, and five grandchildren, Megan, Natalie, Tara, Lindsay and Matthew.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe