Dr Szasz thinks of his three careers as hanging together by “some sort of invisible string, so that what [he] did and learned in one career formed the basis for [his] next one—there was not a clean break between them, it was like a transplanted tree that bore three different fruits.”
Dr George Szasz
Often honored and awarded, Dr George Szasz blames the successes of his various ventures and life experiences on luck and the help of others. I have known George since my teens, and to me he has been a friend, teacher, and mentor. It was not until I recently spent time talking with him about his life that I started to understand its complexities. Concentrating on his medical life made me realize how our mentors help shape our careers and our lives. The following few words are to salute George, but also those who helped him. I have named a few of those individuals in this article. Perhaps we should all think back on our careers and raise a glass to the many good doctors of British Columbia who have supported, and continue to support, their younger colleagues.
In the beginning
The Nazis murdered many of Szasz’s family members during World War II, but circumstances from the previous Austro-Hungarian Empire were such that George and his immediate family were safe. This was the “luck” that saved George’s life even before he was born. Until after the war, when they moved to Budapest, generations of the Szasz family had lived in the large Hungarian city of Szeged, where George’s father managed its famous sausage factory. Bribing the ruling communists with salami may have helped George obtain the necessary passport and exit visa to leave for a study period in Canada. He would live with an uncle and cousin who had emigrated in 1936. George arrived in Vancouver from Hungary in 1947.
George had been an excellent student, graduating summa cum laude from his gymnasium (high school). Paying with eggs, George’s parents sent him to a private tutor to learn English. On arrival in Vancouver, George was admitted to UBC as one of the small quota of foreign students. He had always wanted to be a physician—there had been doctors in the family—and his interest was further fueled by the unjust deaths of medical family members. At UBC George studied sciences in preparation for medical school, but UBC itself did not yet have a medical school. On the advice of Dr Rocke Robertson, one of the founding professors of UBC’s still embryonic school, George went to McGill for premedical studies as it had a quota for BC and foreign students. George, at age 19, owning little more than a tennis racquet, moved into student housing in former barracks outside of Montreal. His roommates were several Jamaican students among whom he perfected his English with a Jamaican accent. He returned to Vancouver to work summers in a lumber plant, while his friends became porters on the Canadian trains. These friendships were long-lasting.
The UBC Faculty of Medicine admitted its first students in 1950. George was admitted in 1951 after completing his pre-med studies and taking further English courses. In exchange for free room and board, he and some other senior medical students were lured by the 15 doctors of the North Shore to the North Vancouver General Hospital to complete histories and physicals on admitted patients. George recalls having a fantastic year as he and the other student-interns became integral to the functioning of the hospital. They learned a great deal and had such significant hands-on experiences that George found his internship year in 1955–56 at St. Paul’s Hospital to be far less challenging.
A life in medicine
Vancouver’s North Shore soon became home for George. He met and married Bess, the love of his life, and Dr Clarence McNeill invited him to join him in practice. For the next 10 years George enjoyed a stimulating full-service family practice. He also participated in administrative medical staff issues, taught sex education in high schools, and helped care for pregnant teenagers who were sheltered in the nearby convent. In his spare time he was a father, an athlete, and an artist, carving wood and drawing cartoons.
The new Lions Gate Hospital opened in 1962. George, along with the other local physicians, had been instrumental in its planning, budgeting, and fundraising. During this ex-perience he realized that family practice was changing and that he would require further training. He continued to be enthusiastic about family medicine but was becoming interested in other aspects of medicine as well. His next career, as an academic, was ahead.
Dr John McCreary, dean of the UBC Faculty of Medicine, was initiating discussions about health care teams and creating a Health Sciences Centre at UBC. In 1966 George was made an assistant professor in the Department of Public Health, with Dr Conrad McKenzie as his mentor. George was the first nonspecialist in an academic position in any Canadian medical school. To quote George, “my task was to focus on the attitudinal aspect of medical, nursing, social work, pharmacy, and rehabilitation therapies in pursuit of the mythical health-team concept,” and “to create an academic atmosphere for change.” George continued clinical practice at the Student Health Service, but most of his time was spent learning to be an educator. The Milbank Foundation in New York provided funding, which allowed him to study at the Chicago School of Medical Education and develop long-standing camaraderie with other Milbank fellows.
George spent the next few years trying to organize interprofessional teaching and programs. The UBC Instructional Resources Centre originated through this work, as did an interprofessional group for pre-med students. Overall the plan failed for many reasons, including the realization that there was no model on which to base this initiative. During this time George created interprofessional evening classes, including one on human sexuality. This, of course, was popular, with as many as 700 health science students attending! George also designed a course for the medical school curriculum, and Dr Harold Copp, then head of the Department of Physiology, made time for it.
Although the office that was devoted to the goal of interprofessional education basically closed down, George remained a faculty member. He continued to push for integrated learning, and his sex education lectures in nursing and medicine were very successful. UBC-trained readers will recall these lectures, not only because the topic was sex, but also because of George’s exceptional teaching ability, charm, and use of cartoons and three-screen audiovisual materials. This was long before PowerPoint.
George was keen to learn more and was able to visit with the research team of William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson in Missouri. On his return, he and Dr Bill Maurice, a new faculty member in the Department of Psychiatry, started the Sexual Medicine Clinic. Bill, George, and obstetrics and gynecology residents cared for couples using the methods of Masters and Johnson. The clinic continues today with interprofessional staff, and there has been a considerable wait list since its opening.
In 1975 Dr Joe Schweigel, the new head of the Acute Spinal Cord Injury Unit, invited George to review and make recommendations regarding the sexual concerns of the predominantly young men who had suffered a spinal cord injury. Their fear of not functioning sexually was more urgent than their fear of not walking again.
Now in his third career, George was in his element working in a clinic that functioned with a health care team, each member having a specific and equally important role. George’s presence, along with the words “Sexual Medicine” clearly printed on his office door, publicly confirmed for the patients that their concerns were of utmost importance. For the next 20 years the newly energized George worked clinically, and in research, along with sexual health clinicians, urologists (particularly Dr Mark Nigro), gynecologists, family physicians, and others on the team. They helped the spinal-cord injured or neurologically impaired men with erectile and sexual problems. Similarly, women with spinal cord injuries or neurological problems such as multiple sclerosis or spina bifida were evaluated for their specific sexual and obstetrical needs. During the team’s research and study it became evident that their patients’ future fertility could also be addressed. The team innovated, published papers, wrote book chapters, and made presentations. In 1995, at the time of George’s mandated retirement at age 65, using refined and innovative techniques, over 40 babies had been born. One was named George.
Outside of work
Although George has already had three medical careers—clinical, academic, and innovative—he did not stop there. From 1962 until 2000, George served on the Library Committee of the College of Physicians and Surgeons. As Jim Henderson, former director of medical library services, stated in a 2001 BCMJ tribute: “His guidance supported efficient access to medical knowledge for members across BC… He saw the shift from the print to the electronic era and ensured the appropriate application of new technology in the Library.” In his honor, the College Council created the George Szasz Award to be given annually to a College Library staff member. George has also been interested in identifying BC physicians who published literary books, as distinct from scientific work. Currently 117 BC physicians are registered at www.abcbookworld.com. George was the nurturer of the “physician author” key word listing. He now writes blog posts for the BCMJ, which you can find at www.bcmj.org/blog/listings. His post entitled, “For Thanksgiving: Thank you, Dr Whitelaw,” is also a tribute to his mentors, with particular mention of an incident with Dr Max Whitelaw, describing a lesson about humanity in medicine.
I hope that George will join his fellow physician authors and write his own story, the fascinating and moving details of which I did not include in this article.
George is perhaps now on his fourth medically related career, immersed in and knowledgeable about Alzheimer disease as he helps care for his beloved Bess in the comfort of their home. For breaks he walks with friends, plays tennis, and rows his single boat at the Vancouver Rowing Club.
And the awards? George Szasz, CM, MD, is a professor emeritus in the UBC Faculty of Medicine, an honorary member of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of BC, a member of the Order of Canada, a recipient of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee medal and of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee medal, to name a few. All these honors were given with respect to his significant accomplishments. George Szasz is without question The Good Doctor.
When not caring for his wife Bess, Dr George Szasz writes frequent BCMJ blog posts and stays fit with walking, tennis, and rowing.
This article has been peer reviewed.
Dr Frinton is a retired obstetrician and gynecologist. She is a graduate of and a professor emerita in the UBC Faculty of Medicine. She was elected to the Council of the College of Physicians and Surgeons, and sat on most committees over her 12 years on Council. After retiring from 30 years of clinical practice at St. Paul’s Hospital, she became the associate dean, admissions, during the expansion of the UBC Faculty of Medicine.