Neil Archibald Watters

Class of: 
Shelagh Dillon

Neil is one of our most distinguished classmates. He is a man of wisdom and integrity. As a seventeen-year-old lad, Neil came to medical school from Oakwood Collegiate in Toronto along with the even younger Bill Arnup. This former member of the Meds football team is now at the class average survival age (89) and plays tennis about four mornings a week.

He spent the last summer of our abbreviated course with Jimmy Simpson on a blood vessel research project in the Banting under the direction of the great Gordon Murray, and both he and Jimmy became committed to surgery.

During our first summers, Neil worked as a dishwasher and waiter on a lake boat, and as a counsellor with Bryans at Camp Temagami.  In brief later holidays, he canoe-tripped through Algonquin and Temagami with Bain, Gallie, Arnup and Bryans.

In the absence of many senior residents and junior staff away overseas, the interns at Toronto General were given more than the usual work and responsibility. In the RCAMC Neil was lucky enough to be appointed to the new 400-bed Crumlin Military Hospital in London, Ontario, and spent his days on the surgical service. After discharge in 1946, for a year he became a research and teaching Fellow with that master of anatomy, J.C.B. Grant. This was in preparation for his entry into the famed Gallie/Janes surgical training program at University of Toronto.  In 1947, while a surgical resident at Sick Kids, he married the beautiful and gracious Shelagh Dillon, a physiotherapist whom he had met at the army hospital. In the early years of their sixty-year marriage, they endured the usual rigors of a long and old-fashioned residency, and in what spare time he was allowed, Neil fathered three sons (one surgeon) and one daughter.

In 1952, after obtaining his Royal College Fellowship, Neil began the first full-time practice of surgery in Galt, Ontario, where a new hospital was being built.

At that time The Wellesley Hospital was a division of the Toronto General, and in 1955 Neil was invited to return to Toronto to join the TGH/U of T staff at the Wellesley.  In 1959 Neil and Ian Macdonald, with the assistance of a friend from Galt who was a member of the Boards of both Toronto General Hospital and the University, and with the concurrence of Premier Frost, were able to sever the ties to TGH, much to the surprise of their administration. Thus began the building and staffing of a new 600 bed independent Wellesley hospital.

For twenty years beginning in 1963, Neil was Surgeon-in-Chief at the new Wellesley, where he was able to recruit a superb surgical staff. During his time as Professor of Surgery in Toronto, Neil was the head of the Royal College Committee in General Surgery, where he was instrumental in establishing the Certificates of Special Competence in Pediatric General Surgery, Thoracic Surgery and Vascular Surgery.  He was Chief Examiner in Surgery for the Royal College, Chairman of Surgery of the Toronto Academy of Medicine, Governor of the American College of Surgeons, and a member of the Senate of the University of Toronto.

For twelve years he was Professor and Head of the Division of General Surgery of the University of Toronto, and Director of Undergraduate Surgery. He was the Faculty Curriculum Coordinator for the planning and inauguration of the new fourth year clinical clerkship program, while classmate Jack Laidlaw was in charge of the second and third years.

In 1977 he was a founder of the Canadian Association of General Surgeons, and chaired the inaugural meeting.  Subsequently he became President. He was founder and chairman of the Board of the Canadian Surgical Research Fund.

Between 1972 and 1980 he was on the Advisory Medical Board and Executive Committee of the Ontario Cancer Treatment and Research Foundation, and was Senior Consultant to the Princess Margaret Hospital. After clinical retirement, he served for ten years on the Advisory Council of the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Tribunal of Ontario.

Major interests in Neil’s retirement years other than beekeeping and the maintenance of an old farm near Cookstown, have been attempting to bend his computer to his will, service on the Board of the local Community Foundation, and the preservation of the nearby Osler church, built and preached in by Sir William Osler’s father.


Career Achievements

Chair, Canadian Surgical Research Fund

Governor, American College Surgeons

Member, University of Toronto Senate

Improvements in surgical practices


Excerpt written by: Dr. Henry Barnett

Personal Story

Speech given at the 13 Jun 2012 luncheon:

We set out on this very retrospective study with the feeling that our class was exceptional. We may have shown that we were at least peculiar.

One peculiarity was our youth at graduation - a median age of 23 years. In those days we went straight from high school into six years of medical school. As Barney has noted, to ready us for the war, holidays were cancelled, shaving more than a year from our course. And the junior internship year was shrunk to eight months.

Not surprisingly then, when we were discharged from the armed services two years later, we felt a need for more training. A remarkable 91% of us undertook one or more years of additional residency, aided by a $50/month educational grant to veterans. Residencies were often unpaid, just bed and meals - Sick Kids did pay a four dollar a month allowance for laundry - withheld from the female residents, who were
expected to do their own.

More than half, 57% of our class, went on to Fellowship in the Royal College, with a further sixteen passing American Specialty Boards. There were nine DPHs, so that three quarters of the class were specialists - needed as patterns of care were changing.

And we were an academic bunch. Fifty-five of our class of 127 held university appointments, including 26 full professors, 18 university department and division heads, and five deans and associate deans of medicine.

Eleven of the class were presidents of national associations. There were too many other distinctions and awards and honorary degrees to list now - they are in the book. I will mention that we had four members of the Order of Canada, two of whom are here with us today.


Barnett, Henry, Joan Borland, Jack Laidlaw, Neil Watters and Bruce Wells. The Epic Journey of University of Toronto Medical Class of 1944. Toronto: University of Toronto, Faculty of Medince, 2012. pg. 78-79.

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