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Education University of Toronto historian Michael Bliss wrote definitive account insulin’s discovery

Historian Michael Bliss holds a number of texts in 1983. His book The Discovery of Insulin won several prizes, was translated into Polish, French and Japanese, and made into a television movie.

Jack Dobson/The Globe and Mail

One of the foremost historians of his day, Michael Bliss wrote more than a dozen penetrating books that won prizes for their scholarship at the same time as they commanded wide public attention by their vivid storytelling. In the course of his 38-year career at the University of Toronto, he wrote about Canada's past from multiple angles – economic, political, medical.

Students flocked to his classes. His popular survey course of Canadian history, illustrated with 1,200 slides of cartoons, great events, famous people and works of art, attracted 300 students and was moved to Monday nights so that members of the public – young and old, including politicians from nearby Queen's Park – could attend.

For Prof. Bliss, history was not a social science but a literary art. He credited his sparkling prose style to his high-school English teacher, Miss Hicks, who taught him to eliminate unnecessary words; to the punchy prose of British historian A.J.P. Taylor; and to the novelists and poets, skilled in the invention of metaphors and similes, whose works he consumed all his life.

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The twin peaks of his achievement were The Discovery of Insulin (1982), the definitive account of the medical breakthrough that occurred 60 years earlier at the University of Toronto, and William Osler, A Life in Medicine (1999), the biography of the revered Canadian-born physician who foresaw the great changes that transformed medicine in the 20th century.

"His history of the discovery of insulin is a classic of medical history," observed his colleague Edward Shorter, professor of the history of medicine in U of T's Faculty of Medicine. "Not only does it treat a landmark event in modern medicine, it does so dispassionately, not as an 'insulin-cheerleader,' but as a professional historian."

Prof. Shorter credits him also with reintroducing medical biography to the field at a time when such biographies were considered outmoded.

Possessed of boundless energy, Prof. Bliss contributed commentaries on the issues of the day. "People who have never heard of him as a medical historian will remember his shrewd assessments of national politics," Prof. Shorter said. His articles appeared in the Toronto Star, Saturday Night magazine, Canadian Business, Literary Review of Canada, Maclean's, National Post as well as this newspaper.

He played a vigorous role in 1987, at the time of the proposed Meech Lake agreement and again at the time of the Charlottetown Accord later in helping to turn public opinion against these initiatives of the Mulroney government, which he believed would undermine our Confederation and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

"Michael was difficult to classify or pigeonhole," said his colleague Michael Marrus, the Holocaust historian. "He never stooped to currying favour with any individual or political party. What was the driving force? It was integrity. Commitment to the truth no matter where it leads."

Michael Bliss died at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto on May 18 of vasculitis, an inflammation of the blood vessels. He fell ill in March while visiting his son in Nelson, B.C., and later entered Sunnybrook Hospital for tests. According to his daughter Laura, he was then transferred to Mount Sinai, a centre for vasculitis treatment, where doctors tried – unsuccessfully – to find an underlying cause.

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He was born Jan. 18, 1941, in Kingsville, Essex County, southwestern Ontario, the second of three sons of Dr. Quartus Bliss and his quick-tempered wife Annie (née Crowe). Their family home on Main Street also served as his father's medical office.

He expected to follow in his father's footsteps until one day – as he recounts this in his memoirs Writing History: A Professor's Life – the police brought a drunk into the office whose face had been slashed. As he watched his father stitch up the bloody wound, young Michael decided he could never be a doctor.

Tragedy dogged the Blisses. His beloved father died at 53 of a heart attack brought on by overwork, while his elder brother Jim, who had become a medical researcher at McGill, was found dead in his lab at 39. After Michael and his younger brother Robert left home, their widowed mother struggled with alcoholism and died at 69.

Young Michael excelled at school and at sports: "Athletic competition always thrilled me," he wrote. (Later he ran regularly through the ravines of Toronto.)

At a high-school dance in 1957, he met 15-year-old Elizabeth Haslam – blonde, beautiful, athletic and a good student. The two danced every dance and kept in touch after he enrolled at the University of Toronto on a full scholarship to study math, physics and chemistry.

At U of T he took a surprising number of wrong turns. The sciences were much tougher than he expected and he found his teachers uninspiring. He switched to the philosophy program, with a minor in history, intending to become a United Church minister.

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While spending a summer as a trainee preacher in Hay River in the Northwest Territories, he saw that his congregation had no interest in philosophy, but attended services from habit. He also preached in Yellowknife and at his old church in Kingsville and sometimes in Toronto. In the end he decided that religion was based on a lie. He was about to receive a degree in philosophy that led nowhere.

High-school teachers were in demand to cope with the baby boomers and with his BA in hand, he could teach after an eight-week training course.

He taught at Central Collegiate Institute in Hamilton, then at Lawrence Park Collegiate while Elizabeth, studying English at U of T, was also on her way to becoming a teacher. They were married in June, 1963, and had a long and happy union that produced a son and two daughters.

After three years of teaching school, he entered the master's program in history at U of T and found his real vocation.

He studied under the dean of Canadian historians, Donald Creighton, biographer of Sir John A. Macdonald, and while Prof. Creighton terrified him, his seminars were intense, stimulating and memorable. The young historian rejected Prof. Creighton's view that Canada lost its way when the Liberals (whom Prof. Creighton despised) loosened the country's ties to Britain, but absorbed Prof. Creighton's dictum that history was about character and circumstance. His research essay, written for Prof. Creighton, was about the Methodist Church during the First World War and it vaulted him into the doctoral program.

His PhD thesis supervisor was the fiery Manitoban Ramsay Cook, who was on the cutting edge of intellectual history. Prof. Bliss recalled in his memoirs that he read two books a day of 500 to 800 pages (42 books in all) without skimming to prepare for his PhD orals, which he aced.

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He spent the next year at Harvard as teaching assistant to U of T's president Claude Bissell, who was on leave to give Harvard's first ever course in Canadian studies. The young historian returned to Toronto in 1968 as a full-time lecturer, while completing his thesis about early Canadian businessmen, published eventually as A Living Profit. In 1978, he became a full professor, having survived a turbulent period when his classes were sometimes disrupted by student radicals. He encouraged debate and listened to everyone but would not tolerate incivility.

His next project was A Canadian Millionaire (1978), a biography of Sir Joseph Flavelle, wealthy pork packer and philanthropist whose business gave Toronto the moniker Hogtown. It won the City of Toronto book award, the University of British Columbia's medal for Canadian biography, and the Canadian Historical Association's two highest honours. Northern Enterprise: Five Centuries of Canadian Business (1987), also a multiple award winner, has remained an essential work of business history.

Prof. Bliss had no fussy objections to popular history. He served as an academic adviser to Pierre Berton when the latter wrote The National Dream and The Last Spike, and Mr. Berton credited him for the success of these books about the CPR.

A mid-career change in direction produced six brilliant books of medical history. The Discovery of Insulin (1982) came about because of the availability of new documents due to the death of various gatekeepers. They enabled Prof. Bliss to tell the dramatic story in full, not only of the discovery itself but the resulting Nobel Prize, later intrigues, patent wars, production problems and the bitter struggle for credit. He showed that the discovery was made not only by Frederick Banting and Charles Best, but also by the physiologist J.J.R. Macleod and biochemist James Collip, who purified the extract.

He moved readers with stories of the earliest patients, emaciated children unable to metabolize food, who recovered miraculously when they received their first insulin shot. Amazingly, he found and interviewed two of them, still alive on insulin six decades later.

The book won several prizes, was translated into Polish, French and Japanese, and made into a television movie Glory Enough for All shown on PBS. It changed his life.

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Over the next two decades he received requests almost monthly to give talks to patients' groups or at medical conventions. In 1987, Eli Lilly, the pharmaceutical company, flew him to Poland to speak, and in 1990 he went to Chile, the same year as he addressed the Turkish Diabetes Foundation in Cappadocia. The disease, which has no cure, afflicts more people today than it did in 1922. He could bring an audience to tears with his images of starving diabetic children and often received a standing ovation.

He supervised two dozen PhD students and served on academic committees. He fought against the practice of awarding honorary degrees to large donors, and naming academic chairs for those who can pay. "He was fierce in argument and could be very unrealistic," Prof. Marrus recalled, "because this is the reality of academic funding today."

One of his last doctoral students was John Turley-Ewart, who wrote his thesis on the evolution of banking. Prof. Bliss was wrongly considered a Conservative, Mr. Turley-Ewart said. In fact, the Ontario Conservatives offered him a safe seat to run for office, but he declined. "He was a classic free-trade liberal, but also insisted on a proper social safety net. He was sometimes consulted by political leaders who wanted to know what might be the outcome if they went down a particular path or introduced a certain policy."

He followed the insulin story with a biography of Fred Banting. Prof. Bliss described him bluntly as "a horse's ass."

Plague (1991) examined the smallpox outbreak of 1885 in Montreal, the worst that ever ravaged a North American city. The National Film Board turned it into documentary film.

His Osler biography followed the great physician from his birth in rural Ontario to Montreal, then Baltimore and Oxford, England, where he ended his career as the Regius Professor of Medicine. Prof. Bliss ran into an unusual problem when writing it: Osler was a saint – kind, brilliant, wise, generous, with no visible faults. Nevertheless, the book was compelling.

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He followed it with Harvey Cushing: A Life in Surgery, about the father of neurosurgery, and The Making of Modern Medicine, the text of a lecture series he gave at Western University that deftly wove together the themes of his previous books.

Family times were spent at the Blisses' heritage summer house on PEI, where a lot of writing also got done.

His memoir Writing History was his final book. He retired in 2006 to spend more time with his grandchildren, quoting Osler that: "Children are the only people worth talking to."

He was appointed University Professor Emeritus, was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, promoted to officer of the Order of Canada in 2013, received a lifetime achievement award from the American Osler Society and was granted six honorary degrees from universities in the United States and Canada. He was an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons and in 2016 he was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame.

He leaves his wife, Liz Bliss; brother, Robert; children, James, Laura and Sally; and grandchildren, Kate, Michael, Jasmin and Joe.

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