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Life Dr. Vera Duane overcame the malevolence of bacteria and busybodies

Vera Irena Solowska Duane: Physician. Wife. Mother. Friend. Born Sept. 18, 1924, in Staromiejszczyzna, Poland; died Nov. 6, 2018, in Toronto; of heart failure; aged 94.

Vera Irena Solowska Duane.

Vera Solowska was so small, so sickly at birth that the village women advised her mother to smother her: “She’ll be nothing but trouble to you.” Ms. Solowska did grow into a child who’d be the first – in a village without a doctor or nurse – to fall ill, notably of the scarlet fever which she survived though it killed her infant sister. Yet Ms. Solowska triumphed against the malevolence of bacteria and busybodies: She accomplished extraordinary things, not least by improving the lives of countless children once as sick and vulnerable as she had been.

At 12, she crossed the Atlantic with her mother and sister, three years before the German invasion of Poland. Her father was waiting for them in Toronto and ushered them into a world of rooming houses, hot plates in corridors and burning bed frames (one surefire way to eradicate bedbugs). Quickly, Ms. Solowska learned English from Lux Radio shows, and adjusted to electric light in place of naphtha lamps and food that came not from the earth but off a grocer’s shelf.

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Ms. Solowska’s teachers recognized her ability and steered her toward academics. She fought prejudice at the University of Toronto’s admissions office. When the registrar objected that someone with a Slavic last name didn’t belong in medical school, Vera showed her high school diploma – 13 firsts – and the objection was dropped.

Graduating in 1949, 10th out of a class of 178, Ms. Solowska became a brilliant diagnostician, which led to her appointment as the first female consultant at The Hospital for Sick Children, to opening her own practice and an appointment at Toronto Northwestern Hospital.

Ms. Solowska was endlessly curious and unfailingly humble, expecting neither admiration nor privilege. Certainly the culture in which she was raised played a part. As a small child, climbing a plum tree, she slipped and hung from a loop of her skirt impaled on a branch, and set up a dramatic wail. Her mother, rushing out, looked and said: “You have your eyes; no bones are broken. Why should you cry?”

Ms. Solowska met Gus Duane at the hospital bed of a mutual friend and their epic 11-year courtship weathered the opposition of yet another group of village busybodies. Toronto’s Ukrainian community couldn’t fathom why a nice Ukrainian girl – a doctor yet! – would want to marry an Irishman. Gus, a pilot in the war, wooed Vera with flights over the city. Their marriage lasted 60 years, in part because of his respect for his wife’s devotion to her profession.

Ms. Solowska, who would sing in the elevator at Sick Kids out of sheer love of her work, also felt deeply torn between her roles as mother and doctor: “I took better care of other people’s kids than of my own,” she sometimes lamented. Yet though her love for her children – Helen, Tom and Peggy – was complicated by her own upbringing, so scant in praise and embraces, it was immense. To see Ms. Solowska with her family was to know that love is the bedrock of a well-lived life. And that life, begun so precariously in a small, benighted village, achieved a long, large, lasting radiance.

Janice Keefer is Ms. Solowska’s niece.

To submit a Lives Lived: lives@globeandmail.com

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Lives Lived celebrates the everyday, extraordinary, unheralded lives of Canadians who have recently passed. To learn how to share the story of a family member or friend, go to tgam.ca/livesguide.

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