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John Martin brought occupational health to Newfoundland

John Martin, first row, second from left, is seen with colleagues at McGill Med School.

As a physician, John Martin was clever, attentive, detail-oriented and personable. His patients loved him. But more than that, he was curious. He didn't just treat a disease, but pursued its origins. This took him inside patient's bodies, and up and down their family trees. He entered their homes and their work environments. And the latter might have been a fluorspar mine or a deep-ocean oil drilling rig.

"He really invented occupational health in the province," said Edward Roberts, former Newfoundland and Labrador lieutenant-governor who held health portfolios in the Smallwood administration and then the opposition in the late 1960s and early 70s. This was when Dr. Martin first took notice of the clusters of illnesses affecting the St. Lawrence miners, where silica dust was causing silicosis. "He pushed, he agitated, he tried to get recognition," Mr. Roberts said.

Mr. Roberts's own chief concern were the asbestos miners of Baie Verte, in his district. But he and Dr. Martin could see they were dealing with similar cases. "Men were getting sick in St. Lawrence, but nobody would draw the conclusion between the [work] and the illness."

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The Baie Verte miners faced the same ignorance: They were told to stop smoking. "Industrial health was largely ignored here. It was in its infancy across the country. Dr. Martin got people to pay attention. He took on these vested interests. They weren't evil," said Mr. Roberts.

But the mining companies – the St. Lawrence Corporation of Newfoundland when the mines first opened in 1933, later the Newfoundland Fluorspar Co. and, in the 1960s, Alcan – would not or could not see the connection between the work and the sickness. Dr. Martin helped track and validate those links.

"He was also the father of rheumatology," said Proton Rahman, who took over Dr. Martin's practice 13 years ago. Dr. Martin was the first in the province to work in that field (even today there are only a handful), and, besides his considerable day-to-day practice, compiled extensive, multigenerational files.

His ability to focus on a patient while seeing the broader picture was characteristic. "He was pleasant and he was precise," said Mr. Roberts. "He was a very capable clinical physician, and a man who would speak his mind."

Dr. Martin died of brain cancer on April 29 in Ottawa.

John Reginald Martin was born in Dublin on April 11, 1922, the second of four children of Kathleen (Humphreys) and Cecil Percy. His father was a First World War veteran who had served with the British Expeditionary Forces in (then) Mesopotamia, during which he suffered a shrapnel wound to the head. "He was given a few months to live but lasted another 60, 70 years," said Philip MacKinnon, Dr. Martin's nephew and a former Canadian ambassador to Egypt and Iran. "But he was left with a hole in his head that you could put your finger in. That was a very impressive thing for a small child."

Cecil Martin lectured in anatomy at Trinity College, Dublin before joining the Anatomy Department at McGill and moving the family to Montreal in 1936.

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Dr. Martin finished high school in Dublin and then spent a year at Montreal West High School. He graduated from Lower Canada College in 1939, and from McGill with a BSc (1944) and an MD. Over the next few years he had assistant resident and research fellow appointments in several departments in several hospitals, including pathology at the Royal Infirmary, Aberdeen, and the Clinical Investigation Unit at Queen Mary Veterans Hospital in Montreal, where he was later assistant resident in psychiatry.

He completed his specialty training in rheumatology at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York in 1954 and worked as director of the Arthritis Clinic at the Montreal General Hospital and Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine at McGill. He came to Newfoundland in 1971 as a professor with the new medical school at Memorial University.

"His primary clinical interest was rheumatology," said Dr. Rahman. This subspeciality of internal medicine includes diseases and inheritable diseases of joints, soft tissue and autoimmune diseases, and Dr. Martin's concerns included osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, chronic pain, epidemiological studies and genetic studies, with charts of multiple-generation family member diseases. (Newfoundland and Labrador is considered genetically isolated and thus ideal for such studies, and Dr. Martin had also completed a combined course in medical statistics and epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in 1986 in support of such work).

"Scientifically, he was very inquisitive," said Dr. Rahman.

His positions in occupational health included a dozen years as chief occupational medical officer for the Province of Newfoundland, which involved directing and developing occupational-health initiatives across the province, and the country. He was also on the Royal Commission into the Ocean Ranger Disaster, which saw all 84 crew lost during a terrible storm in February, 1982.

Its recommendations highlighted the urgent need to focus on worker safety, including attention to emergency training, safety and rescue, as well as rig design.

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Among his many board and committee positions, he was the president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association, and on the board of directors of the Canadian Medical Association, and a member of the council of the Royal College and Physicians and Surgeons in Canada.

He received the Occupational and Environmental Medical Association of Canada's Meritorious Service Award in 1996.

And all along, he helped his patients, and taught his students. As a doctor he was "super," Dr. Rahman said. "He was a small, thin man but a towering figure. You felt he had all the time in the world for you." And he was an "outstanding" teacher, "informal, effective, and very well read."

Dr. Martin wrote two books. The first was a biography of Leonard Albert Miller, who influenced a generation of Newfoundland health policy, and which was "a fine piece of work, and highly regarded," Mr. Roberts said. And the second, The Fluorspar Mines of Newfoundland: Their History and the Epidemic of Radiation Lung Cancer, was published late in 2012 by McGill-Queen's University Press.

The book follows the story of the province's fluorspar mines from their founding through the final shipment in 1990 and bankruptcy a year later. Dr. Martin explores the health hazards – chiefly cancer – the miners faced, and how they, the mining companies, governments and health services dealt with them. The mines, now properly designed for safety, are slated to reopen under Canada Fluorspar Inc., and in March, 2012, the province committed $17-million in a repayable contribution to a two-year construction phase of the project.

"I always thought of him as a polymath," said Mr. MacKinnon. "He had a depth of knowledge in a number of areas. Natural sciences. Religion. Classical Greek and Rome. He had catholic interests."

Dr. Martin was, of course, an excellent doctor, but he would have made a fine classical scholar, too, Mr. MacKinnon added.

Mr. MacKinnon was able to experience this side of Dr. Martin because he spent a lot of time with him growing up. "He was our bachelor uncle, he didn't marry until his late 30s."

Dr. Martin met his wife, Claire, while they were both working at the Montreal General Hospital; he was at the Arthritis Clinic while she was next door at Casualty, as the ER was then known. Even before their first date – dinner at the seafood restaurant Desjardins, followed by a walk on Mount Royal – he'd told his parents he had met the woman he was going to marry. They wed on March 14, 1959.

But even as a single man, he was devoted to family, Mr. MacKinnon said, frequently visiting their home in PEI, and hosting them in Montreal. His affections were returned. "He always treated young children with respect, which I find very rare. He would take us for long walks. Turn stones over. He could explain it all. Fossils, plants, trees."

Walking and hiking were lifelong passions. "He was relatively small, but always spry, fit," said Mr. MacKinnon. "Even at 85 he could walk the hind legs off people."

Dr. Martin also enjoyed gardening, and going out berry picking. He was also a regular speaker and leader at the Faith Bible Chapel in St. John's for more than 40 years. "Religion was his anchor," said Mr. MacKinnon.

Dr. Martin leaves his wife, Claire (Connor), and children Richard, Jennifer and Christopher.

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