Skip to main content
lives lived

John Wiseman Steele: Scholar. Immigrant. Trailblazer. Adventurer. Born May 27, 1934, in Motherwell, Scotland; died July 16, 2018, in Winnipeg of complications from non-Hodgkin lymphoma; aged 84.

For John Wiseman Steele, learning was a lifelong pursuit that didn’t end when he became the teacher.

John was born in a gritty industrial town in Lanarkshire, Scotland. Their street led to the gates of a steel mill, and for many young men that’s where the path ended. John’s parents didn’t have much, but they always encouraged him to study hard.

He wasn’t a perfect student: John despised Latin and viewed learning a dead language as a waste of time. But when a teacher rapped his knuckles for doing poorly, he buckled down and shot from the bottom of the class to the top.

Open this photo in gallery:

John Wiseman Steele.The Globe and Mail

Always fascinated with the mysterious bottles and intriguing smells at the local chemist’s, he decided on a career as a pharmacist. He was accepted at the University of Glasgow, where student life offered few comforts and dinner often consisted of a tin of beans heated over a Bunsen burner.

One Saturday night in 1953, John asked a nice-looking young woman to dance. It was only after she rushed off with her friends to catch the last train home that John realized he’d forgotten her name, and had no way of getting in touch with her. After some sleuthing, he tracked Muriel Gribbon down, and she agreed to another date.

Warned by his mother to “no bother wi’ lassies the noo,” John ignored her advice and continued seeing Muriel. He finished a PhD, and with the threat of two years of mandatory military service looming, he began looking abroad for job prospects. The offer came from the University of Manitoba and John sailed for Canada in September, 1958. Muriel followed and they were married in December, their wedding party consisting of people she’d only just met.

The faculty of pharmacy was housed in an army hut beside the Red River, where some of John’s students had a hard time deciphering his thick brogue. They later joked they’d taught him to speak English.

John always leapt at the opportunity to study abroad, and in 1965 he, Muriel and their three young children set off for London. During the 1966 World Cup, John was invited to observe the laboratory process for testing for banned drugs. That brief experience must have qualified him as an expert because after returning to Winnipeg, John was approached to organize drug testing for cyclists in the 1967 Pan American Games, a first in Canada.

John and Muriel would have one more child and many more adventures, including study leaves in Switzerland, France, North Carolina and New Zealand. John was promoted to dean, a position he held until retirement.

Later John decided to learn ancient Greek, a dead language if ever there was one. Then he took up modern Greek, just for the hell of it.

Weeks before he passed away, John convinced Muriel to book a cruise to Alaska, a part of the world he’d never seen. It was a voyage he must have known he might not make, but it was on his bucket list, and in some people the passion to see and learn new things can never be extinguished.

Alistair Steele is John’s son.

To submit a Lives Lived:

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

Interact with The Globe