Gordon Perkin’s first job, as a contraceptives salesman in Northern Ontario, sparked a life-long interest in reproductive medicine that eventually saw him direct almost $5-billion from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to strengthen the health of women and children around the world.
The self-effacing general practitioner was also the founder of PATH, now one of the world’s largest non-profit health organizations.
Colleagues call him a giant in his field, but they say he remained to the end a humble man with a keen sense of humour and an overriding interest in improving the lives of others less fortunate.
Dr. Perkin died in Seattle of lung cancer on Aug. 21 at the age of 85.
“He often would share ideas with staff members and then, a year later, hail the staff member for the resulting innovative product or program, taking no credit for himself,” says Peggy Morrow, a former vice-president of PATH. “A rare brilliant man with no ego, he truly was a mentor and inspiration to more than one generation of global health leaders.”
Dr. Perkin, who was born on April 25, 1935, grew up in Toronto and met his future wife, Elizabeth Scott, when the two were still in high school. He attended the prestigious University of Toronto Schools and then studied medicine at the University of Toronto.
While in medical school, Dr. Perkin needed a summer job, so he applied to a long list of drug companies and landed a spot at Ortho Pharmaceutical.
He travelled Northern Ontario in a company car, visiting doctors to introduce them to contraceptive technologies and conversing with pharmacists to make sure they were stocking the latest Ortho products.
“This was in the 1950s, way before contraceptives were mainstream and well established,” his son Scott Perkin said. “He saw that this was going to take off and that there was enormous potential in it.”
The Perkins were married in 1957. Dr. Perkin graduated with a medical degree two years later and set up his practice in Maple, north of Toronto.
But he soon left small-town life to do clinical research at Ortho’s New Jersey laboratory and then, in 1966, became an adviser on population issues for the Ford Foundation.
“He knew he could continue as a family doctor in a family practice and make meaningful close relationships with a relatively small number of people and be very well respected or he could use his medical degree to try to have an impact on larger numbers of people, but perhaps more anonymously," his son says. “He made a conscious decision to go down that latter route.”
The new job saw the Perkin family spend the next 14 years travelling the world, first to Thailand, then Ghana, then to Switzerland where Dr. Perkin was seconded to the World Health Organization. That was followed by time in Brazil and then Mexico.
Mr. Perkin says he and his brother, Stuart, grew up outside Canada and his mother, who has a teaching degree, was an active partner in the global adventure.
“I wonder sometimes,” he says, “how two regular kids growing up in Toronto in the 1940s and 50s, both with that kind of fascination for international affairs, managed to find each other and then build a life overseas together.”
Throughout those years, reproductive health remained a primary interest for Gordon Perkin. He served as a board member of the Committee on Contraceptive Development of the National Academy of Sciences, as well as for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
In 1977, he and two colleagues, Gordon Duncan and Richard Mahoney, founded what they called PIACT (Program for the Introduction and Adaptation of Contraceptive Technology), which evolved to become the more broadly focussed PATH (Program for Appropriate Technologies in Health.)
“I think, over time, they just realized that you can’t look at contraceptives without looking at the wider issue of women’s health and women’s rights,” Mr. Perkin says.
Dr. Perkin became president of PATH in 1980 and served in that position for the next two decades bringing health technology to the world’s poor as the small non-profit agency grew into a leading international health organization.
Among its innovations was a vial monitor that reveals when vaccines have been corrupted by temperature change, a disposable syringe that eliminates the need for sterilization, and a sanitary birthing kit with illustrations for mothers who cannot read.
In 1979, a leader at the United Nations Population Fund asked him to arrange tours of all major western contraceptive factories in United States, Canada and Europe for a group of Chinese pharmaceutical leaders who wanted to learn western practices. Despite the challenges of getting manufacturers to agree, that tour ultimately led to a 15-year partnership of the UN, the Chinese and PATH which resulted in safer, more effective, contraceptives for more than 50 million couples.
“He was renowned for sharing innovative ideas with collaborators as well as competitors, in the hope the outcome would result in positive health impacts for the people who needed them,” Ms. Morrow says.
The work brought Dr. Perkin to the attention of Bill Gates Sr., who wrote to PATH in the mid-1990s offering $750,000 for projects related to family planning and reproductive health.
Five years later, in the fall of 1999, Dr. Perkin was asked to join the Gates Foundation as executive director of global health programs. He was given the opportunity to direct money from what was then the richest philanthropic foundation in the world to the causes that had been close to his heart for more than four decades.
“At the Ford Foundation, I felt incredibly fortunate to be in the grant-making business,” Dr. Perkin told The Globe and Mail in 2000. “But there, if I had $2-million a year, I felt I was incredibly well off. This is of a completely different scale.” At the Gates Foundation, Dr. Perkin helped to create Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, which has vaccinated hundreds of millions of children in poorer countries around the world.
Mr. Perkin says one of the keys to his father’s success was his apparent lack of interest in receiving credit for what he accomplished, and his overriding desire to get things done.
“Dad could just make things happen and he wasn’t always concerned about convention,” he says. “Colleagues talk about the fact that he would often have examples of PATH’s latest technologies, such as female condoms, in his jacket pockets and he would pull them out to show to people at parties.”
In 2010, Dr. Perkin was invested as an officer of the Order of Canada, one of the country’s highest honours.
He and his family remained connected with Canada during summers spent at a cottage built near Minden, Ont. by Dr. Perkin’s father. Scott Perkin says that was where his dad enjoyed his happiest moments.
Gordon Perkin is remembered as a man who loved antiques, and trilobites, and seafood and life in general. Every year on his birthday he would send flowers to his mother as a way of saying “thanks for having me.”
And he never stopped working to improve the health of women around the world. Even in retirement, he became involved in the Terrewode Women’s Fund which treats fistulas in Uganda.
Bill and Melinda Gates issued a statement saying they were “heartbroken” upon learning of Dr. Perkin’s death.
“As the first leader of our global health program, he was instrumental in establishing our foundation as a credible partner in the field,” they wrote. “In that role, he helped revitalize many lifesaving efforts, including providing family planning and childhood immunizations for people in need around the world. Countless people today are alive because of Gordon’s efforts.”
Mr. Perkin says he believes his dad would want his legacy to be the continuation of the work he started.
“I know he stayed close to PATH and he would certainly hope for PATH to grow and expand,” Mr. Perkin says of his father.
The job at the Gates Foundation enabled him to give to the causes that meant so much to him over the years, he says. “For him, it was a dream come true.”
Dr. Perkin leaves his two sons, daughters-in-law Mary and Crissy, and Elizabeth, his wife of 63 years.