Prof. John Walter: Prolific author, teacher and practitioner.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012
John B. Walter
LMP Professor John Walter

From publishing multiple textbooks on pathology to teaching several generations of pathologists, dental surgeons, dermatologists and paramedics, the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology’s (LMP) Professor John Walter was actively engaged in inspiring and educating future leaders in health care. Even following his death, this legacy continues after his creation of the John B. Walter Teaching Award and the John B. Walter Lecture series which further promotes the role of education in the department.

In 1965, after ten years at the Royal College of Surgeons in England, Prof. Walter accepted a position as Associate Professor of Pathology at the Banting Institute at the University of Toronto. He also accepted a position as Staff Pathologist at the Toronto General Hospital and later specialized in dermatopathology.

He and his wife Elizabeth were excited to move to Toronto where new opportunities awaited. She describes their first encounter prior to their marriage, “Our story is a bit unusual. I was a medical photographer at Mount Vernon Hospital which was a cancer hospital just outside of London, England where John was a pathologist. I used to go into the operating theatres where they performed surgeries and I would use a large-format camera with tungsten lights – it was quite the set-up! I was photographing surgeries for teaching purposes and John asked if I could photograph some of his autopsies.” 

As a prolific writer, he began his publishing career with co-author Dr. Martin Israel. His first textbook General Pathology was published in 1963 and, with seven editions up to 1996, it became essential reading for trainee pathologists. This influential publication was followed by Principles of Pathology for Dental Students, An Introduction to the Principles of Disease used by nurses and paramedics in North America and Human Pathology.

Upon moving to Toronto, Elizabeth began promoting General Pathology and would later publicize his publications and other textbooks through publishers such as Macmillan Canada and University of Toronto Press.

Beyond publishing, Prof. Walter’s passion for teaching extended to the classroom. Throughout his extensive career, Prof. Walter taught nursing, undergraduate medical, and postgraduate students, and he lectured at an annual course in dermatopathology organized by the Dermatology Foundation of Boston.

His teaching and sense of humour became renowned. “He was a fantastic teacher and educator and his publications received wide acceptance. While he was a funny guy and was a personable soul he didn’t suffer fools,” says former Chair of LMP, Professor Malcolm Silver, of his former colleague. He adds, “One of my main memories of John was his passion for collecting firearms. He had a collection of antique canons and every time we went to John Walter’s cottage he’d blast his canon and scare the neighbours.”

Elizabeth and son Tony, a dermatologist, continue Prof. Walter’s legacy by maintaining support for the John B. Walter Teaching Award and the John B. Walter Lecture Series.

This year’s John B. Walter Lecture emphasized the progression of our understanding of cancer biology and illustrated the exciting research currently being conducted. Guest lecturer, Dr. Craig A. Gedye, Postdoctoral Research Fellow with the Ontario Cancer Institute and Medical Oncology Fellow with the Princess Margaret Hospital, University Health Network, lectured about the challenges of heterogeneity in cancer. He addressed the differences between patients' cancers, the variation within cancer in a single patient and the differences that exist even between individual cancer cells. Dr Gedye discussed how this heterogeneity enriches our understanding of what cancer actually is, how this makes cancer treatment more challenging and finished by providing a glimpse of how this complexity can be overcome to provide more effective and more personalized treatment options for cancer patients.

It is through the support of the Walter family that students are able to learn about these exciting developments. Prof. Walter’s contribution to the dissemination of knowledge on general pathology throughout the second half of the twentieth century and his passion for teaching will be remembered for years to come.