Remembering John Last: Epidemiologist, public health advocate, book collector, writer

December 10, 2019 | Author: Guest post

John M. Last, OC, MBBS, MD, FRCPC, died on September 11, 2019, just shy of his 93rd birthday. A memorial service will take place from 4:00 to 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, February 11, 2020, at Amphitheatre B (2003), Roger Guindon Hall, University of Ottawa, 451 Smyth Road, Ottawa. Reception to follow. Please RSVP attendance to

Dr. Last was a longtime contributor to the Royal College. From 1990 to 1997, he was a member of the Royal College Health and Public Policy Committee, the Ethics and Equity Committee, and Archives and Library Committee. An avid book collector, he amassed an enviable collection of antiquarian and rare books, as well as collectible books on the history of medicine, public and community health, ethics and the philosophy of medicine. He donated over 930 of these books to the Royal College. They comprise the John M. Last Collection.

Dr. Last submitted a first-person obituary to the Royal College in the summer of 2015, with a request that it be published after receiving notice of his death. We have published that obituary here.

Dr. John Last in 1982 (credit: Julie Paul)

Dr. John Last in 1982 (credit: Julie Paul)

I had a very interesting and thoroughly enjoyable life. I was born in South Australia in 1926, educated at St. Peter’s College and the University of Adelaide, where I graduated in medicine in 1949. After 10 years treating sick and injured people in hospitals in Adelaide and in Britain, and as a general practitioner in Adelaide, I had a philosophical conversion to the notion that it is better to prevent disease, injury and premature death than to wait for disease or injury to happen and try to treat them.

I trained in public health sciences and epidemiology at the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine at the University of Sydney and the UK Medical Research Council Social Medicine Research Unit in London, where Jerry Morris was my mentor. I held academic positions at the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, University of Sydney; the University of Vermont, USA; and the Usher Institute of Public Health at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland; before joining the staff of the University of Ottawa where I was chairman of the Department of Epidemiology and Community Medicine from 1970-1978 and professor emeritus from 1992 onwards.

I worked as a consultant for the World Health Organization and other agencies, and as a visiting professor in Latin America, South and East Asia, the Middle East and Europe. I was often lucky to be in the right place at the right time and made the most of these opportunities. My combination of rich experience in family doctoring and training in epidemiology was much in demand in the late 1960s, and enabled me to choose among career openings in the UK, USA and Canada. This combination and facility with words provided unique opportunities for me to write and edit important books in my field.

I received many awards and distinctions. In 1993 I was awarded the MD honoris causa by Uppsala University, Sweden; and, in 2003, I was awarded the MD honoris causa by the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. I was one of only two people ever to receive the highest award, the gold medal, of both the Canadian and American Public Health Associations. I was admitted to the Order of Canada as an Officer of the Order in 2012.

I was editor in chief of the 11th, 12th and 13th editions of Public Health and Preventive Medicine (“Maxcy-Rosenau-Last”) and editor emeritus of the 14th and 15th editions. I compiled and edited the first four editions of the Dictionary of Epidemiology and was associate editor of the 5th and 6th editions. The Dictionary of Epidemiology has been translated into at least 15 languages and is used by epidemiologists all over the world. Following the success of this book, I compiled and edited a Dictionary of Public Health.

I was president of the American College of Preventive Medicine from 1987-1989 and held office in several other professional colleges and associations. My monograph, Public Health and Human Ecology, was used as an orientation text for students in numerous schools of public health and other graduate training programs. I was scientific editor of the Canadian Journal of Public Health in 1981-1992, editor of Annals of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada from 1991-1998 and editor or editorial board member of several other books and journals. I led the initiative of the International Epidemiological Association to develop guidelines for ethical conduct of practice, research and teaching of epidemiology, and played a prominent role in drafting ethical guidelines for epidemiological studies for the Council of International Organizations of Medical Sciences and the American College of Epidemiology.

John Last in January 2014, holding his book Public Health and Human Ecology (New York: McGraw Hill, 1997). The bookshelves behind him to his right hold many books that he wrote or edited, or to which he contributed chapters. Photo credit: University of Ottawa

John Last in January 2014, holding his book Public Health and Human Ecology (New York: McGraw Hill, 1997). The bookshelves behind him to his right hold many books that he wrote or edited, or to which he contributed chapters. Photo credit: University of Ottawa

I was editor or author of several other books, chapters in 51 books, about 100 original articles in peer-reviewed medical and science journals, entries in several encyclopedias; and documents, working papers, information brochures etc., for the governments of Canada and Ontario, the World Health Organization and other multilateral agencies.

In Adelaide, in springtime 1955, I picked up two young women hitchhikers. I was instantly attracted to one of them by her sense of fun, her spirit of adventure, her passionate concern for others and her smile that lit up all around her. After a courtship of several months, I was married for nearly 55 years to that hitchhiker, Janet Margaret Wendelken (“Wendy”). We had three children, Rebecca, David and Jonathan, and three grandchildren, Chris, Peter and John.  I did the gentleman-like thing, and let Wendy go first: she died of motor neuron disease (ALS) after a short illness in 2010.

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Kathleen-Marie Tracey | March 9, 2020
I met Dr. John Last at the Royal College of Physicians likely early 1990`s for an interview as I was teaching my young daughter how to do research. Two of my favorite books were given to me by Dr. Last at the time; Zinsser, Hans ``Rats, Lice and History`` and Roueché, Berton ``Medical Detectives``. Dr. Last was very kind and, of course, generous with his time for my young daughter`s grade school project. Rest in peace Dr. Last and wife Wendy.
Get In, Loser - deonandia | March 2, 2020
[…] Rest in Peace, Dr Last. […]
mary e lockett | December 12, 2019
I met Dr. Last at Colonel By in 2018; I was there temporarily after bone fractures. I was quickly drawn to John's (he insisted I call him John) warmth, intelligence, down to earth demeanor, We shared many stories, including John's background, attachment to Scotland (and single malt Scotch whiskies, and the "plonk" wine served at Colonel By (John provided his own, I should have too), his novel, "Gloriana and the Twins - search for pirate treasure". Also, I joined John for lunch and dinner a few times. When my husband first visited me he saw and recognized Dr. Last from the University of Ottawa since my husband is a dermatologist associated with the University. Thereafter he and John (Dr. Last also required that my husband call him John) would share medical stories. Again in 2019 I met and visited with Dr. Last for I was again at Colonel By for a short time following a bone fracture.. I told him I had purchased his children's novel, "Gloriana and the Twins A Search for Pirate Treasure". I read and kept it for me, for I love it and it is a re-read, and I love Dr. Last's story behind it - real-life events - which caused him to write it. What I have said here may seem like trivia, but I had to write it because Dr. Last reinforced in me the art, importance, and relevance of story telling. It is an auspicious day for me that the day I left Colonel By is the same day John died.
| December 19, 2019
What lovely memories! Thank you for sharing, Mary. – Royal College Communications