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Dr. John Evans, seen in 2007, was named president of the University of Toronto in 1972.Philip Cheung/The Globe and Mail

One of the most capable men of his generation, John Evans left his mark on many institutions in Canada and the United States, but he never wanted the applause. At 6 foot 4, he was a tall poppy in more ways than one, but his modesty and self-deprecating humour endeared him to all who crossed his path, whether at McMaster University, where he reinvented medical education; the University of Toronto where he presided in the 1970s; the World Bank, in Washington; the Rockefeller Foundation, in New York; Toronto's Medical and Related Sciences (MaRS) innovation centre, which he founded; or at the assorted business enterprises whose problems he was called upon to untangle as a board member or chairman.

"Keep your accomplishments to yourself," he advised his six children (hard to do after two of them won Olympic gold in rowing in 1984.) "People don't like flash."

When he was appointed president at U of T, his family was excited by the prospect of having a chauffeur, a perk of the job.

"Then my father came home and announced that no, there will be no chauffeur because we had a perfectly good car," recalled his daughter Gill Evans in an interview. He drove a blue Dodge Dart that had seen better days.

When Dr. Evans drove up to the gate of the university's executive parking area on his first day at the beginning of July, 1972, according to family lore, the conversation went like this:

"Yes, sir. Where are you going?" the guard asked.

"I am going to Simcoe Hall."

"And why is that?"

"I am starting a job there." The guard eyed him skeptically.

"What will you be doing ?"

"Well, actually, I'll be running the place."

Dr. Evans died at his home of Parkinson's disease on Feb. 13 at 85. He had been ailing for about six years and was almost completely blind.

With his gift for leadership, he might have been a great prime minister, but his one attempt at running for office ended in defeat when he lost a by-election to Toronto's popular former mayor David Crombie.

John Robert Evans was born in Toronto on Oct. 1, 1929, the youngest of seven children of Mary and William Watson Evans. His father's family, of Welsh origin, had been pioneers in the Owen Sound area (a clan of "gargantuan men" according to Gill Evans). William Evans started an investment company called Traders Finance, but died of a heart attack when John was two. At the age of nine, the boy lost his mother to cancer, and was thereafter raised by his teenage siblings.

"My father was aware from an early age of having to look after himself," Ms. Evans says. "He developed an incredible work ethic and never watched television."

After Rosedale Public School, he was admitted to UTS (the elite secondary school), and having skipped two grades, started at the University of Toronto at 16. He was drawn to architecture but ended up studying medicine, while also playing varsity football.

One evening at the end of medical school, he felt ill and was trying to rest up in Toronto General Hospital's basement for a football game the next day. He lost his heart to a young nurse named Gay Glassco when she visited him at the end of her shift to give him something to eat and drink, although this was against the rules. "They were direct opposites. My father was shy and quiet; my mother was effervescent. She lights up the room," his daughter says. "It was a big attraction."

They married in 1954, after Dr. Evans did a residency in cardiology and before he took up a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford. Their first child, Derek, was born in England in 1956. Oxford opened a door to the world.

The couple returned to Toronto, where twins Michael and Mark were born in 1957 and daughter Gill in 1959. Two more children, Timothy and Willa, followed in the 1960s. Dr. Evans was a research fellow at the Harvard Medical School in 1960 and '61, then an associate professor at U of T's faculty of medicine while he treated cardiac patients at Toronto General Hospital from 1961 to '65. This was the only period when he practised as a clinician.

At the age of just 35, he was tapped by Harry Thode, president of McMaster University, in Hamilton, Ont., to head up an audacious experiment in medical education that would distinguish McMaster from competing schools. It was here, as dean of the medical faculty, that Dr. Evans first demonstrated his genius for articulating a vision and inspiring a large group of people to work together to make it a reality.

In 1910, an educator named Abraham Flexner had toured 155 medical schools in the U.S. and Canada and found that most were neither rigorous nor scientific. The handful he approved of – including McGill, the University of Toronto and especially Johns Hopkins University – became models of medical training for the next five decades: long lectures on isolated subjects for the first two years and late exposure to patients.

According to David Goldbloom, professor of psychiatry at U of T and senior medical adviser at CAMH, Dr. Evans did two things: "First, he recognized that people could learn how to problem-solve rather than memorize. He emphasized that we [should] think less about isolated organs and more about the whole patient. He stood the old model on its head and had medical students see patients early on, which made the requisite learning immediately relevant."

The other revolutionary change was in admissions. Getting in did not require a heavy dose of undergraduate science and he accepted people from diverse backgrounds, including mature students.

That the approach worked was proved by the huge increase in applications and by the plaudits graduates of the program won as they rose through the ranks. Elements of the McMaster approach have since been adapted at medical schools around the world.

Mr. Evans's success at McMaster led to his appointment as president of U of T in 1972, just as one of the treasures of the university, Connaught Laboratories, where insulin was first manufactured, was being sold to the Canada Development Corporation. Dr. Evans had a hand in negotiating the final price and in setting up the Connaught Fund with the proceeds. The fund supports scientific research at the university to this day, generating about $3.8-million annually with a capital value of just under $100-million.

His other notable accomplishments at U of T included forging a memorandum of agreement between the university and its faculty that resolved bitter grievances; restructuring the university's relationship with member colleges and the establishment of Woodsworth College for part-time students; and the appointment of the university's first female vice-president, the historian Jill Ker Conway (later president of Smith College).

In her memoir True North, Dr. Conway describes the meetings of Dr. Evans's administrative team: "Everyone looked forward to these weekly meetings. The issues were endlessly fascinating, and the information absorbed invaluable, but the most enjoyable was to listen to the president sum up and provide the prescription for action. … He did this with such incisive wit, vivid imagery, practical insight into organizational and political behaviour and concern for a collaborative style of action that the group was amused, instructed and encouraged to surrender petty jealousies."

The university president's job is highly social, and Mr. and Mrs. Evans attended or hosted some 100 functions a year. Yet he avoided the limelight. The Globe's society columnist, the late Zena Cherry, was seated at his table at one such event and asked him what he did. "I am a veterinary psychiatrist," he replied. "You have no idea of the problems dogs and cats have."

According to his children, this exchange appeared in Ms. Cherry's column.

Dr. Evans left the university when Pierre Trudeau invited him to run for the Liberals; the family threw themselves into the 1978 by-election campaign heart and soul. After the defeat by Mr. Crombie in the Rosedale riding, Dr. Evans – jobless – was at the lowest point in his life. Gill Evans recalls: "People didn't know what to say. Someone he knew crossed the street rather than talk to him."

When he was headhunted by Robert McNamara, head of the World Bank, to create a new department of Population Health and Nutrition at the bank, Dr. Evans gladly accepted, commuting to Washington. Mr. McNamara was controversial for his part in the Vietnam War while he was U.S. secretary of defence from 1961 to '68, but later in life he held that war was futile. He grasped that development (the World Bank's mandate) was impossible where people were sick and malnourished.

According to Timothy Evans, who is now at the World Bank himself, his father's challenge was to overcome the bureaucratic push-back against any change in the role of the bank. "My father started the engagement of the World Bank in health when population health was a new field and it was a significant change in the banking world. Institutional forces come into play against the new," he said in an interview. "My father was able to articulate health as an investment, not simply an expenditure and this changed the way health was viewed not only at the World Bank but beyond."

He travelled widely in Africa and Asia, asking questions in villages and hospitals and listening closely to what people said they needed to solve their health problems. An early success of the World Bank was controlling the spread of river blindness, a parasite-borne disease, in West Africa.

After four years at the bank, Dr. Evans returned to Toronto and became chairman and CEO of Allelix, one of Canada's first biotechnology companies, with an emphasis on agricultural and medical bioengineering. "This was virgin territory," says another son, Michael, who is a former vice-chairman of Goldman Sachs in New York. "Allelix was at least 10 years ahead of its time, and needed large amounts of capital to leverage the scientific expertise." When capital proved insufficient, the company merged with Salt Lake City-based NPS Pharmaceuticals.

Dr. Evans was a trustee of the Rockefeller Foundation in New York, and from 1987 to 1995 acted as the chairman of its board – the first Canadian to do so. On his watch, the foundation inaugurated a tropical disease research program, a vaccination program, an attack on poverty in American cities, an arts program to present cultural diversity in museums and a global environmental program.

"He met fantastic people there," says his daughter, among them actor Alan Alda.

"Alda and his wife Arlene [a clarinetist, photographer and children's author] visited us on the farm." The Evans family bought a working farm in Kleinburg, north of Toronto, in the 1960s, where they relaxed on weekends and holidays. (Dr. Evans's idea of relaxation was to clear brush or toss bales of hay.)

He was appointed chairman of Alcan and of Torstar, and named a companion of the Order of Canada, member of the order of Ontario and fellow of the Royal Society. He received honorary degrees from universities in the United States, Canada and the Netherlands.

Then, when he was about 70, he had an idea for a centre in downtown Toronto to stimulate innovation and put the brightest people in touch with entrepreneurs who could make their ideas and inventions commercially viable. He was concerned that the province was not making good use of the research being carried out.

So strongly did he believe in the need for MaRS, as this innovation centre came to be called, that he contributed several million dollars of his own money to help acquire the building and land on Toronto's College Street, where it is housed.

In his mid-70s, Dr. Evans was treated for depression, an early sign of the Parkinson's disease that eventually deprived him of mobility and speech.

"MaRS brought together all the threads of his life – physician, academician and university administrator, biotech entrepreneur, business leader, global health pioneer," said Ilse Treurnicht, current CEO of MaRS, in a eulogy at Dr. Evans's funeral service. "Right until the end, he wanted to know what was happening [at MaRS] more than anything else."

Dr. Evans leaves his wife, Gay Evans; his six children; 23 grandchildren; and one sister, Buffy Meredith.

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