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Dr. Peter Dent, a pediatrician who founded the McMaster Children’s Hospital (MCH) and was a professor emeritus of McMaster University, died Sept. 23, 2021, at the age of 85.V. Tony Hauser

The same week that Newsweek recognized McMaster Children’s Hospital as one of the top 100 pediatric hospitals in the world, its foremost champion, pediatrician Dr. Peter Dent, died of bladder cancer in Hamilton on Sept. 23. He was 85.

Widely known as an indomitable force, Dr. Dent founded the pediatric hospital in Hamilton, arranged for a Ronald McDonald House to provide nearby accommodation for caregivers of sick children and developed a web-based platform, still in use, for medical specialists around the world to share information.

Ever modest, Dr. Dent, shunned the spotlight – unless he was twirling around a dance floor with his wife, Diane. Even being named to the Order of Canada in 2017, for his vision, tenacity and multi-pronged contribution to pediatric medicine, caused him a measure of discomfort. Ms. Dent recalled her husband saying, “There are so many people who’ve done greater things than I have.” At the Order of Canada investiture ceremony, he accepted the honour on behalf of others who had worked hard for children and those who had helped him during his career.

His interest in pediatric medicine began when he was a child. Treated with care and kindness for ear infections that required occasional hospitalization at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, the boy saw his future helping other children in a similar manner. He wanted to give back to the world via medicine and resolved to earn good enough grades to do so.

Peter Boris Dent, who was born in Prague on May 16, 1936, moved to Toronto with his parents, Esther Marie, an amateur photographer, and Eric Dent, a political scientist, at the start of the Second World War.

Peter attended Upper Canada College followed by the University of Toronto, where he graduated from medicine in 1960. He completed his training in pediatrics at the Hospital for Sick Children and found himself attracted to a pediatric nursing student named Diane Gower.

She was president of the student council while he was in charge of intern and residents’ student activities. Organizing social activities was necessary and gave him the perfect opportunity to meet her for coffee. Eventually, and to Ms. Gower’s surprise, he went down on one knee in the neonatal ward where newborns were sleeping and asked her to marry him.

Their wedding took place in 1962. Shortly thereafter, the couple undertook a transatlantic crossing to England where Dr. Dent completed a year of pathology at a children’s hospital in Birmingham. Back in Toronto they had the first of three daughters.

Dr. Dent's interest in pediatric medicine began when he was a child. Treated for ear infections that required occasional hospitalization at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, he wanted to give back to the world via medicine.Courtesy of Hamilton Health Sciences

Keenly interested in immunology, the study of the body’s immune system, Dr. Dent was pleased to accept a Queen Elizabeth II Fellowship to study in Minneapolis with Dr. Robert A. Good, a giant of immunology.

By 1968, Dr. Dent had sufficient knowledge and experience to join McMaster University’s medical school in Hamilton as a clinical scientist with a focus on cancer immunology and pediatric rheumatology, at that time an undeveloped field. Dr. Dent was also responsible for creating a multidisciplinary program within the two fields.

In 1980, when Dr. Dent took over as chair of McMaster’s Department of Pediatrics, he felt strongly that the burgeoning city of Hamilton needed more pediatricians as well as a hospital devoted to the medical needs of children. It wasn’t good enough to have the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto approximately 80 kilometres away. A seriously ill or injured child who required immediate assistance in Hamilton could end up being treated by a doctor trained only to treat adults. The results could potentially be fatal.

Dr. Dent quietly went about his business battling bureaucracy and some provincial politicians who felt that money allocated to children’s health care should only go to Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. Dr. Dent’s refusal to give up paid off.

In 1988, the McMaster Children’s Hospital opened. Dr. Dent strode its halls wearing a traditional long white lab coat, accompanied by a colourful tie, or bow tie, to catch the eye of his young patients.

Twenty years later, in recognition of his achievements, Dr. Dent was inducted into the Hamilton Gallery of Distinction and in 2015 into the McMaster University Faculty of Health Sciences Community of Distinction. As a board member and chair of the pediatric section of the American College of Rheumatology, Dr. Dent helped cement Hamilton’s reputation as a world leader in children’s health. Bruce Squires, president of MCH wrote, “Dr. Dent had the vision, foresight and tenacity to identify the need for McMaster Children’s Hospital which stands tall today as a globally recognized leader for pediatric care, research and innovation.”

Dr. Dent’s position within the university occasionally required him to attend faculty dinners, often with long speeches and mediocre food. Many staff took turns in order to avoid being present at every occasion, but not Dr. Dent. After formalities were over and dinner plates cleared, the dancing began.

“Peter asked if he could always get an invitation,” Dr. John Kelton, former dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences at McMaster said. “He and Diane were wonderful dancers. Inevitably they were the last couple on the floor.”

Ever modest, Dr. Dent shunned the spotlight; even when being named to the Order of Canada in 2017, he said 'there are so many people who’ve done greater things than I have.'Cliff Halliwell/Couvrette/Ottawa

Dr. Dent officially retired in 2020. A devout churchgoer and strong believer in following one’s moral compass, Dr. Dent developed a fondness for, and considerable expertise in growing dahlias. He gave friends tubers and flowers as gifts but was notoriously difficult to buy for, as eldest daughter Jennifer Haddon attested at his funeral service.

Rubber chickens were eventually given to him as gag presents. She recalled once having given him tickets to watch his much-loved Blue Jays play at home in the SkyDome (now the Rogers Centre), from a restaurant venue in the ballpark while eating a delicious lunch. She soon realized her dad “much preferred being in the stands with a beer and a hot dog where he could occasionally shout at a player, calling him ‘a lazy overpaid bum,’ ” she said, prompting murmurs of amusement. “Who could imagine he would say this?”

One gift that was an unqualified hit, however, was tickets to a fundraiser luncheon with Steve Paikin, host of TVO’s The Agenda. The political broadcaster had attended the same Hamilton high school as the Dent daughters and was delighted to see he already knew the people he would be dining with. Dr. Dent wasted no time offering opinions on topics for Mr. Paikin’s show.

“The nuggets of some ideas actually made it to air,” Mr. Paikin said. As Mr. Dent’s illness progressed, Mr. Paikin kept in touch with phone calls that could go on as long as 90 minutes while they discussed weighty matters such as what comprises a successful life. Both men enjoyed their discussions.

“Peter was a soft-spoken guy. He was not a boastful man. He was not a braggart,” Mr. Paikin said. “But in all the things he was involved with in the medical community of Hamilton, you just knew it made a big difference. He wanted to have an impact on his community, and his world, and he did.”

Dr. Dent leaves Diane, his wife of 59 years; his daughters, Jennifer, Ashley and Rebecca; and four grandchildren.

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