Revolutionaries aren’t usually described as humble and unassuming: but then, it would be just like John Evans to redefine revolution. Over the course of his remarkable life, Evans was a force for change in the fields of medicine, technology, business and education, in Canada and beyond. His eventful term as U of T’s ninth president (1972–1978) came at the midpoint of a life that touched millions of others in a positive way.
The Toronto-born Evans, who died on February 13 at age 85, lost both his parents before the age of 10. Raised by six older siblings, he graduated from U of T (MD 1952) then went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. Returning to Canada, he made his first great mark at the tender age of 35.
As founding dean of McMaster University’s medical school in the mid-1960s, Evans ushered in an entirely new model of medical education – one that emphasized collaboration and problem-solving over the passive ingestion of facts. Since then, the tenets of the “McMaster model” have spread globally and become gospel in disciplines outside of medicine. At U of T, Evans took the tiller in a stormy climate of student unrest and severe budget pressures. “It was a very challenging time,” says David Naylor, who served as the university’s president from 2005 until 2013. “But he handled it all with unflappable integrity.”
Several of his innovations continue to serve the university well. Evans helped to negotiate the sale of U of T’s Connaught Laboratories in 1972. The research fund set up with the proceeds has since awarded $130 million in grants. He also created the university’s unicameral governance system, and established Woodsworth College to serve part-time students. After his time at U of T, Evans was invited by the philanthropic Rockefeller Foundation to do a review of American schools of health. He completely re-imagined the mandate of these schools. “His main argument,” says Naylor, “was that they needed to be focused more on preventive medicine – to think broadly about the social determinants of health, as well as health policy and administration.”
Evans carried this holistic view of health care into his subsequent work as founding director of the World Bank’s Population, Health and Nutrition Department. He also served as the Rockefeller Foundation’s first Canadian chair; headed up Allelix, Canada’s first biotechnology company; and was founding chair of the Canada Foundation for Innovation. After chairing the boards of the Toronto Star and Alcan Aluminum, he went on to found, in his eighth decade, the MaRS Discovery District, a Toronto “convergence centre” for innovation in medicine, business and technology.
Married for 60 years and the father of six, Evans is – even for all his accomplishments – remembered as much for who he was as for what he did. His considerable intellect was matched by a legendary sense of humour that enlivened any gathering, and his best qualities included “emotional intelligence and people skills,” says Naylor. “He had, arguably, the widest and most important impact of any Canadian physician and academic of his generation.”