Canada’s doctor shares thoughts from his career journey

A convocation address to the first graduating class of York’s new Faculty of Health was delivered by Canada’s first chief public health officer, Dr. David Butler-Jones, who received an honorary doctorate from the University on June 14 in ceremonies held at the Keele campus.

Dr. David Butler-Jones speaks at York University Convocation 2007Known as Canada’s Doctor, Butler-Jones, who is the inaugural head of the Public Health Agency of Canada, shared with the class of 2007 insights gained on his journey from clinician to administrator, and said he considers working in the health field a "tremendous privilege".

Left: Dr. David Butler-Jones. Photo by CSi/

“We are involved with humanity at its greatest and weakest moments, in profound life experiences, in birth, in death, in the midst of suffering we are invited into others’ experiences of great joy and profound sorrow,” said Butler-Jones,

Likening work in health care to a journey of surprise and discovery with individuals and whole communities, Butler-Jones said it is “one of the things about public health that I have enjoyed most and which presents us with our most interesting challenges.”

After describing the exploits of Christopher Columbus, who he said, set out to find India, didn’t, and ended up having a disastrous effect on 90 per cent of the people he encountered by helping introduce infectious disease to their world, Butler-Jones said chance plays a large role in public health and careers.

“But never discount the positive things that can be brought about by serendipity,” he said, noting that penicillin was discovered quite by accident as was the vaccine for small pox. “What we intend and what we achieve don’t always start out on the same path. Likewise, it’s those opportunities that appear when we least expect them, that are often the grandest and most satisfying.”

Butler-Jones also observed, “what little wisdom we may have is rarely unique to us or to our time and…it is all connected. It is no coincidence that the areas hardest hit by the tsunami and hurricane Katrina were also the poorest. It should also be no surprise that healthy, resilient communities have fewer problems and, when they do face them, they recover faster.”

Describing his philosophy about public health, Butler-Jones called it “a whole-of-society approach to addressing the determinants and the causes, creating supportive environments and working to insure that every person has the opportunity to be healthy and prosper. It must not be about a competition between prevention, treatment and care, but rather the balance that delivers the best outcomes. And it’s not just about length of life, it must be about the quality of life gained and preserved,” he said.

“Whatever area of health or other sector you work in, much is expected of you now as new graduates, he said. "Your hard work in getting to this very point offers, I think, great promise and the rewards are there when we recognize them for what they are. Each of you, if you are open to them, will be part of miraculous events, sometimes in the midst of what are otherwise tragedies and they will change you.”

Convocation ceremonies took place June 11-16. You can watch archived Webcasts of the ceremonies on the Convocation Web site.