Jacalyn Duffin

Jacalyn Duffin, MD, FRCP, PhD, CM, hematologist and medical historian (born 9 June 1950 in Thorndale, Ontario). Duffin began her medical career as a hematologist and became a medical historian and professor of medical history. She is a champion of the medical humanities, an interdisciplinary field of study that explores the arts, humanities and social sciences as they relate to healthcare education and practice. She has published numerous books and articles in the field and was president of the American Association for the History of Medicine (AAHM) and the Canadian Society for the History of Medicine. Duffin received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the AAHM in 2019 and was named a Member of the Order of Canada in 2020.

Jacalyn Duffin, MD, FRCP, PhD, CM, hematologist and medical historian (born 9 June 1950 in Thorndale, Ontario). Duffin began her medical career as a hematologist and became a medical historian and professor of medical history. She is a champion of the medical humanities, an interdisciplinary field of study that explores the arts, humanities and social sciences as they relate to healthcare education and practice. She has published numerous books and articles in the field and was president of the American Association for the History of Medicine (AAHM) and the Canadian Society for the History of Medicine. Duffin received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the AAHM in 2019 and was named a Member of the Order of Canada in 2020.


Dr. Jacalyn Duffin, hematologist and medical historian. Photo taken in Utrecht, the Netherlands, in September 2011.
(photo by Wieke Eefting, courtesy Jacalyn Duffin)

Early Life and Education

Jacalyn Duffin was born 9 June 1950 in Thorndale, Ontario. Her mother, Eileen May, was an educator and choir leader. Her father, Ken Duffin, was an RCAF veteran and businessman. Her father died when she was 12. Her brother, Ross Duffin (born 1951), is a musicologist specializing in early music.

Duffin received her MD from the University of Toronto in 1974. She married physician Hugh Lansing Lipton and had a son, Joshua, in 1977. Duffin completed a fellowship in internal medicine and hematology in 1979 and moved to Thunder Bay, Ontario, with her family. In Thunder Bay, she worked as a hematologist, treating blood disorders such as hemophilia, leukemia and lymphoma. Lipton died in a bike accident in 1981.

Following her first husband’s death, Duffin married Robert David Wolfe, a Canadian diplomat who was working in Paris, France, in 1982. They had a daughter, Jessica, in 1983. As Duffin could not legally practise medicine in France, she decided to study medical history at Sorbonne Université in Paris. She received her PhD in the History and Philosophy of Science in 1985, with a dissertation on the history of the stethoscope and its inventor, René Laënnec.

Medical Miracles

Jacalyn Duffin and her family returned to Canada in 1985. That year, she received a Hannah Postdoctoral Fellowship in the History of Medicine at the University of Ottawa. She also worked as a substitute hematologist in Ottawa-area hospitals.

In 1987, a colleague asked Duffin to review a sample of bone marrow slides. After examining more than 400 slides taken over a period of 18 months, Duffin concluded that the patient was a woman who suffered from acute myeloblastic leukemia. The patient had undergone a pattern of remission and relapse, followed by remission. The typical life expectancy of a patient with this type of leukemia was only one and a half years, so Duffin assumed that the patient had since died. More importantly, Duffin found that there was no scientific reason for the patient’s final remission.

Shortly after Duffin made her report, she was told that the patient had survived and that her report was for the Vatican (see Catholicism). The patient had prayed to Marie-Marguerite d’Youville to be healed. Duffin testified before an ecclesiastical court that there was no scientific explanation for the patient’s full recovery after relapse. The Vatican used Normand’s recovery as the final miracle to establish D’Youville’s sainthood. D’Youville, the first Canadian-born saint, was canonized in 1990.

This experience inspired Duffin to research miracles in the Vatican archives. She reviewed testimony for about 400 canonizations dating between 1588 and 1999 and later described herself as an “atheist who believes in miracles.” This research led to her 2009 book, Medical Miracles: Doctors, Saints, and Healing in the Modern World.

Dr. Jacalyn Duffin in the library of the New York Academy of Medicine, 2008.
(courtesy Jacalyn Duffin)

Teaching

In 1988, Jacalyn Duffin was offered the position of Hannah Chair in the History of Medicine at Queen’s University. She also started to work as a consulting hematologist at Kingston General Hospital. At Queen’s University, Duffin taught students in medicine, nursing, history, education and philosophy and integrated the history of medicine into the medical curriculum. An enthusiastic advocate for students, Duffin won several awards for excellence in teaching. From 1993 to 1995, Duffin was associate dean of undergraduate studies and education at Queen’s University.

Publications

As of 2020, Jacalyn Duffin has published 11 books as an author, an editor and a translator, as well as numerous articles. Her book History of Medicine: A Scandalously Short Introduction is assigned reading in medical programs across Canada. Since 1995, she has been a contributing editor to the Literature, Arts and Medicine Database, an online collection of resources in the field of medical humanities. Duffin has also collaborated on a project translating the work of 17th-century Italian physician Paolo Zacchia.

Activism

Jacalyn Duffin runs the activist website www.canadadrugshortage.com, which details increasing prescription drug shortages in Canada since 2010, particularly of older generic drugs whose patents have expired.

Legacy

Jacalyn Duffin retired from Queen’s University in 2017. In 2015, the graduating medical students at Queen’s University established the Jacalyn Duffin Award for Advocacy. Since 2018, Queen’s School of Medicine has organized the Jacalyn Duffin Health Humanities Conference.

Honours and Awards

Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (2012)
Fellow of the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences (2013)
Inductee, Canadian Medical Hall of Fame (2019)
Lifetime Achievement Award, American Association for the History of Medicine (2019)
Member, Order of Canada (2020)