Brock Chisholm | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Brock Chisholm

George Brock Chisholm, CC, CBE, ED, psychiatrist, medical administrator, soldier (born 18 May 1896 in Oakville, ON; died 4 February 1971 in Victoria, BC). Brock Chisholm earned  honours for courageous service in the First World War, including a Military Cross (MC) and Bar. He obtained his MD from the University of Toronto in 1924 and became an influential psychiatrist following training at Yale University. He introduced mental health as a component of the recruitment and management of the Canadian Army during the Second World War. He directed the army’s medical services, served in the federal government as deputy minister of health, and became the founding director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO). His vocal attacks on methods of indoctrinating children with societal myths made him a controversial public figure. He was an often provocative advocate of world peace and mental health.

Brock Chisholm

Early Life

Brock Chisholm was the third of six children born to Frank and Lizzie Chisholm. Frank delivered coal and sold patent medicines. Lizzie, who suffered from a debilitating illness, struggled to care for Brock and his siblings. His older sister, Faith, helped raise the younger children. The family had trouble making ends meet on Frank’s modest earnings.

One of Brock ’s ancestors was William Chisholm, founded the town of Oakville, Ontario, where Brock’s family lived except for a brief period in Galt, Ontario. Among the men of the family, there was a long tradition of military service that Brock continued when he enlisted for the First World War in 1915. At age 19, he joined the 48th Highlanders of Canada, a Toronto regiment, as a private.

First World War Service

Brock Chisholm served in the trenches in France and rose through the army’s lower ranks. By January 1917, when he was made a lieutenant in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, he had already been a cook, sniper, machine-gunner and scout. That August, he fought in the Battle for Hill 70 and earned the Military Cross for courage. His leadership of his platoon one year later in the Battle of Amiens earned him the addition of a bar on the medal in recognition of his further acts of bravery. His citation read:

During two attacks this Officer led his platoon with great courage under very heavy fire, dressing the wounds of some of his men at great risk to himself, and when more than half of his men were casualties he disposed the remainder with great ability and consolidated his position. He set a brilliant example to his men.

Chisholm was wounded in the Battle of Cambrai on 27 September 1918. He spent the rest of the year recovering in England and rejoined his battalion in France in January 1919. By May, the month before the Treaty of Versailles, he was back in Canada. Chisholm finished the First World War with the rank of captain.

Education and Early Career

Since he’d been a child, Brock Chisholm had wanted to become a doctor. He enrolled in medicine at the University of Toronto in 1919 and graduated in 1924. That same year, he married Grace Ryrie, whom he had met 10 years earlier. The newlyweds spent a year in London, England, where Brock completed postgraduate work. They returned in 1925 and set up a general medical practice in Oakville. Grace worked alongside her husband as a nurse. Their daughter, Anne, was born in 1928.

Did you know?
Many First World War veterans suffered from mental health problems that doctors of the era linked to a condition they called “shell shock.” Originally thought to have been caused by exposure to exploding shells (bombs), shell shock is now recognized as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) caused by the emotional trauma of war. In the 1920s and 1930s, Brock Chisholm experienced symptoms of shell shock: severe nightmares and one incident in which he broke down at the sound of a firecracker.

During these years, Chisholm became increasingly interested in psychiatry. His war experiences had left him fascinated with human behaviour and the mind. In his own medical practice, he emphasized emotional and mental health. In 1931, Chisholm studied at the Yale Institute of Human Relations in addition to teaching and working as a psychiatry resident. In 1933, the family moved to London again, where Chisholm completed additional training in psychiatry. That year, Chisholm and his wife adopted a baby boy, Sandy.

The Chisholms returned to Canada in 1934, settling once again in Oakville. Brock practised as a psychiatrist in Toronto from 1934 to late 1939. During this time, he was also increasingly in demand as a public speaker. He lectured on a variety of topics, including mental health, fear and sexual education.

Second World War Service

Brock Chisholm remained active in the Canadian military in the years after the First World War. He rose to senior ranks in the militia (i.e., the reserve infantry forces) while pursuing his medical career. From 1928 to 1931 he was lieutenant colonel of The Halton Rifles and from 1931 to 1932 he was lieutenant colonel of The Lorne Rifles. In the late 1930s, he was a commander of The Lorne Scots, a new amalgamation of regiments from Halton, Peel and Dufferin Counties. (See also Armed Forces.)

Shortly after the Second World War broke out in September 1939, Chisholm was given command of military units in northern Ontario. He left his medical practice for this posting, which involved visiting prisoner of war (POW) camps, inspecting military units and organizing recruitment.

In his first year in this position, Chisholm wrote a pamphlet that outlined platoon commanders’ responsibilities for maintaining morale among their troops. Chisholm saw morale as crucial to the strength, mental health and unity of soldiers, and his pamphlet offered guidance on how to promote these qualities. Distributed widely among officers, the pamphlet became popular and influential in the Canadian Army. It caught the attention of senior army officials, who transferred Chisholm to National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa.

PULHEMS System of Medical Grading

In 1941, Chisholm became the army’s director of personnel selection. He developed a new system for evaluating recruits that weighted aspects of mental health on the same scale as physical health. Chisholm’s template for assessing recruits was called PULHEMS (Physique, Upper Limbs, Lower Limbs, Hearing, Eyesight, Mentality, Stability).

In matching individuals to roles in the army, this new selection process accounted for factors such as a recruit’s learning skills and stability in stressful situations. Psychologists began visiting army training camps across the country, assessing personnel who were struggling to meet expectations or whose behaviour violated army policies or norms. Chisholm’s changes were credited with improvements in the efficiency, happiness, attitude and integration of soldiers, as well as decreased alcohol abuse (see Alcoholism).

In an era when the definition of health was often limited to physical condition, Chisholm’s approach was ahead of its time. The British and American armies, as well as several European forces, soon adopted the PULHEMS system.

Director General of Medical Services

In 1942, Chisholm was promoted to director general of medical services for the Canadian Army. He expanded the processes for screening new recruits by having psychiatric social workers gather information on candidates that might point to a nervous or mental disability. He made the antibiotic drug penicillin widely available to the army while it was still being tested for safety, calling this “a gamble [that] paid off.” He had an antitoxin made as a pre-emptive measure against potential biological warfare by the Germans. He also tackled the high rate of sexually transmitted infections in the Canadian Army through education, blood testing, promoting condom use and supporting efforts to shut down brothels (see Prostitution). By the end of the war, he held the rank of major general.

Health Administrator and Controversial Public Figure

In November 1944, Brock Chisholm was appointed federal deputy minister of health in the Liberal government of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King. He played a central role in early attempts to negotiate the Green Book proposals (plans for a national health-insurance system) with the provinces (see also: Health Policy; Social Security; Welfare State).

King, William Lyon Mackenzie

Chisholm’s public platform had grown since the mid-1930s, through his lectures and speeches. He had also earned a reputation for courting controversy, which peaked in 1945 with his remarks in several speeches on parenting, education and morality. That October, in New York, his lecture on peace to the William Alanson White Foundation drew calls for his resignation from Cabinet ministers and more than 20 non-governmental organizations. Chisholm had attacked traditional morality and religious teachings for instilling guilt, fear and prejudice in children. In his view, these teachings produced immature adults incapable of free, rational thought and ultimately bound for war. Not all objected to his opinions: some journalists, prominent psychiatrists and the faculty of Queen’s University came to his defence over the White Foundation lecture.

The solutions Chisholm proposed for world peace could be authoritarian. In his 1945 acceptance speech for the Albert A. and Mary Woodward Lasker Award from the US National Committee for Mental Hygiene, Chisholm proposed that, as a short-term solution, a world police force could help keep peace by destroying any nation that started war.

In November 1945, Chisholm delivered some of his most famous remarks in a speech to parents at the Rockliffe Home and School Association in Ottawa. The theme was similar to that of his speech the previous month: traditional approaches to child-rearing made world peace impossible. To make his point, he attacked the tradition of teaching children to believe in Santa Claus:

“Any man who tells his son that the sun goes to bed at night is contributing directly to the next war… Any child who believes in Santa Claus has had his ability to think permanently destroyed… Can you imagine a child of four being led to believe that a man of grown stature is able to climb down a chimney… that Santa Claus can cover the entire world in one night distributing presents to everyone! He will be a man who has ulcers at 40, develops a sore back when there is a tough job to do, and refuses to think realistically when war threatens.”

Chisholm’s remarks provoked widespread criticism and a storm of media coverage. He nevertheless continued to speak and debate publicly into the spring of 1946 amid continued calls for his resignation from members of the House of Commons.

Director-General of the World Health Organization

Brock Chisholm did resign as deputy minister of health in July 1946, but not from political pressure. He was appointed executive secretary of a commission that the United Nations had tasked with establishing the World Health Organization (WHO). In addition to coming up with the organization’s name, Chisholm contributed his definition of health to its constitution: “…a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” In the negotiations leading up to the WHO’s formation, Chisholm stressed that the organization must be truly global in its scope. He insisted that it serve the “world citizen” and see past divisions imposed by national borders and histories.

On 21 July 1948, Chisholm was appointed the WHO’s first director-general, a position he held until 1953. He and Grace moved to Geneva, Switzerland, where the organization had its headquarters. In this role, Chisholm oversaw efforts to combat diseases such as malaria, cholera, tuberculosis and sexually transmitted infections. Under Chisholm, the WHO also began to improve the standardization of drugs around the world. When his five-year contract came up, he retired at age 57.

Flag of the United Nations

Later Life and Advocacy

Upon their return to Canada, Brock and Grace Chisholm built a house near the village of Sooke on Vancouver Island. In the mid-1950s, Brock held positions as a special lecturer at several universities. Until the late 1960s, the couple travelled half the year for his many speaking engagements. Chisholm unsuccessfully ran as a Conservative candidate for the Esquimalt electoral district in the 1956 British Columbia election (see also Canadian Electoral Systems).

He continued to make the same kind of provocative statements that had propelled him into the spotlight earlier in his career. But he also turned his attention to issues such as pollution, overpopulation, wealth inequality and food security. He supported sterilization as a population-control measure, a practice now widely considered unethical but more widely accepted in his time (see also Eugenics: Sexual Sterilization Laws).

Chisholm became involved in many peace organizations and wrote for pacifist magazines. Atomic destruction and germ warfare particularly concerned him, and he opposed the idea of Canada acquiring nuclear arms. In 1957, he took part in a meeting of international scientists in Pugwash, Nova Scotia, to discuss the dangers of nuclear arms. This was the first in a series of conferences that would eventually win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995 (see: Pugwash Wins Nobel Prize; Nobel Prizes and Canada). In 1961, Chisholm helped found the Canadian Peace Research Institute. To prevent nuclear war, he advocated for a global government, a global police force and a global legal system.

By 1967, the year Chisholm was appointed a Companion of the Order of Canada, he had suffered several strokes (see Heart Disease) from which he would not recover. He died in a veterans hospital in Victoria in 1971.

Order of Canada


In his military career, Brock Chisholm was a decorated soldier who became an effective, bold and forward-thinking administrator. He introduced mental health as a crucial factor in the selection, placement and management of army personnel. His PULHEMS system of medical grading was not only successful in Canada, but also influenced other Western nations’ approach to military recruitment.

As the founding director-general of the World Health Organization, Chisholm helped define a new, global approach to health that included an emphasis on mental and emotional well-being. The organization still operates on the constitution that Chisholm helped draft.

While Chisholm received his share of criticism for his unconventional views — some of which still lie outside the mainstream — he was seen as tolerant, wise, realistic and logically persuasive on many topics. He was one of the first public figures in Canada to emphasize the dangers of pollution, overpopulation and the nuclear arms race.

Selected Honours and Awards

  • Military Cross (1917)
  • Bar to the Military Cross (1918)
  • Efficiency Decoration (1942)
  • Commander, Order of the British Empire (1943)
  • Albert A. and Mary Woodward Lasker Award, US National Committee for Mental Hygiene (1945)
  • Honorary Fellow, American Public Health Association (1948)
  • Kurt Lewin Memorial Award, Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (1948)
  • Honorary Fellow, Royal Society of Medicine (1949)
  • Honorary Doctorate, University of Nancy (1950)
  • Honorary Fellow, Society of Medical Officers of Health (1951)
  • Lasker Award, American Public Health Association (1952)
  • Honorary Doctor of Science, University of British Columbia (1954)
  • Honorary Doctor of Science, Wake Forest College (1955)
  • Honorary Member, Canadian Psychiatric Association (1955)
  • Honorary President, World Federalists of Canada (1956)
  • Honorary Member, US National Association of Sanitarians (1957)
  • Honorary Life Member, Canadian Public Health Association (1958)
  • Humanist of the Year, American Humanist Association (1959)
  • Honorary Doctor of Science, Dartmouth College (1960)
  • Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters, Brandeis University (1960)
  • Distinguished Fellow, American Psychiatric Association (1963)
  • Companion, Order of Canada (1967)
  • Inductee, Canadian Medical Hall of Fame (2019)


  • Prescription for Survival (1957)
  • Can People Learn to Learn? How to Know Each Other (1958)

Further Reading

External Links