Skip to content

Trail grad of '61 appointed to Order of Canada

“My idea was that aspirin might be the ideal drug to use in patients with unstable angina,” explained Cairns.

A rare honour has been bestowed upon a J. L. Crowe graduate. 

Dr. John Allan Cairns was awarded the Order of Canada by Her Excellency, the Right Honourable Mary Simon, Governor General of Canada, on Thursday, June 27. 

“It is a terrific honour,” Cairns told the Trail Times. “I am very humbled and pleased to receive it. It’s a great feeling.” 

Established in 1967, the Order of Canada celebrates outstanding achievements and extraordinary contributions. Over the years, its members have been honoured for inspiring innovation, for shaping who we are, and for enriching Canada’s fabric. This year, 83 members were appointed to the Order. 

“The Order of Canada recognizes individuals who have made positive and lasting impacts on communities here in Canada or who have brought honour to our country abroad,” said the Governor General in a release. 

Dr. Cairns resides in West Vancouver but went to high school in Trail and stood as president of the 1961 student council at J.L. Crowe Secondary School before moving onto a groundbreaking career in medicine. 

“I had always, ever since I was a young boy, wanted to be a doctor,” said Cairns. “It seemed to me a very fine profession, a helping profession and it really attracted me.” 

Cairns’ father, who was an Engineer for Cominco (Teck), recommended he follow in his footsteps. 

“I actually took a year of engineering at UBC and recognized that wasn’t the field for me, it was really medicine that I wanted.” 

Cairns found his role models in two local doctors that served the Silver City and surrounding area for decades. 

“People like Jack Colbert and John Stefanelli were doctors in Trail, and they were very fine individuals. I had tremendous respect for them, and my sense was that I wanted to be somebody that had those skills. 

“So it was a pretty strong motivation to go into medicine.” 

Dr. Cairns obtained his medical degree from UBC in 1968 and was awarded the Hamber Gold Medal for highest standing in the fourth year of Medicine and the Hamber Scholarship for highest standing throughout the four years of the medical course. 

Cairns obtained his Fellowship from the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada in Cardiology (1973) and in Medicine (1974) and pursued research training at McGill University and the Royal Victoria Hospital with the support of a Medical Research Council scholarship. 

“The excitement of research hit me when I was at McGill,” said Cairns. “It was a very research-intensive setting … And I realized that when you’re a physician you help individual patients, but if you make breakthroughs in research, you can help very large numbers of people.” 

Dr. Cairns joined the Department of Medicine at McMaster University as an Assistant Professor in 1975 and was promoted to Professor in 1985. It was during this time that Cairns and his team made a groundbreaking discovery through clinical trials that involved seven different Ontario hospitals, and has since helped millions worldwide. 

“My idea was that aspirin might be the ideal drug to use in patients with unstable angina,” explained Cairns. “These were people with a threat of a heart attack but hadn’t actually had one yet; and it worked! 

“It was almost unbelievable, the results. There was a very dramatic reduction in deaths, and the combined outcomes of myocardial infarction, or heart attack, was dramatic as well.” 

Cairns was appointed Dean to the UBC Faculty of Medicine in 1996. He was happy to return to his home province, but when he arrived, he found the medical school prohibitively underfunded and much smaller than it needed to be, with only 120 graduating students. 

“UBC had the lowest ratio of medical students to population in the country by far. Despite being a wealthy province, it had been impossible to convince the B.C. government to expand the medical school.” 

Cairns led efforts toward its expansion, increasing the faculty and student body numbers, while making marked improvements to the medical facility. 

Thanks to the hard work of Cairns and subsequent leadership, and with the cooperation of a new government, the UBC faculty of medicine is one of the best in the country, and the graduating classes over 300 students. 

“It was tremendously satisfying to work with the provincial government to increase and strengthen it.” 

Over the years, Dr. Cains has served with several academic societies, holds many elected fellowships, published over 200 articles in prestigious medical journals, and served as president of the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences. 

Undoubtedly, at the top of his list of honours is his induction to Trail’s Home of Champions monument in 2011. 

He was also invested with the Order of BC in 2014, and received the Faculty of Medicine, Award for Excellence in Mentoring Early Career Faculty in 2018. 

“The work isn’t over yet. We have somehow got way behind in terms of the number of physicians needed by the population. But B.C. has certainly gone in the right direction in the last 20 years. 

“Medical education is expensive, there is no question about it, but it’s even more expensive not to invest in it,” Cairns said. “It is so important to make sure you have the physicians supply you need and the healthcare system that people require.” 

Cairns retired from UBC in 2018 but is still active. He has an office at the Vancouver General Hospital, continues to teach, and do administrative work. 

Dr. Cairns maintains a connection to the Kootenays with his cottage at Christina Lake, and still praises the benefits of attending high school and graduating in Trail. 

“One of the things that impressed me at the time about Trail, was the quality of education there. We had a very fine high school and high aspirations amongst the students.” 

Cairns notes the opportunity for summer students to work at Teck (Cominco) every year, making the cost of attending university more affordable and post-secondary education accessible. 

“It was a very influential part of my life, and very high educational values as well, so I’m grateful for that.” 

Dr. Cairns and the other appointees will attend an investiture ceremony in Ottawa to receive their insignia. 

Jim Bailey

About the Author: Jim Bailey

Read more