Dr John Sanderson Smith, 1936–2013

Issue: BCMJ, vol. 56, No. 7, September 2014, Pages 351-352 Obituaries

portrait of the late Dr. Smith
Dr John Sanderson Smith was born in Shrewsbury, England, and died suddenly in Surrey, BC, where he had lived for the past 43 years.

I first met John in the summer of 1978. My wife, Mary, was invited to a ladies’ lunch put on to welcome us back to BC from PEI, where I’d been a missionary orthopaedic surgeon for 4 years. John was also a missionary, once removed, in Surrey Hospital when he became the second internist on staff, joining the inestimable Dr Ludwig Mirabel.

A family friendship ensued and our combined seven children subsequently grew up together. Our four daughters, especially, became lifelong friends. The girls still visit each other, no doubt detailing the successes of their children and the failings of their husbands, just as their mothers did. John and I found ourselves thrown together through our wives. We seemed to hit it off, each of us having a dominant gardening gene. I bought a house in White Rock and wanted to clear the back of the lot to plant a large vegetable garden. Although John wore a lifelong Janus gardening face, with a strong disinclination toward growing vegetables but a passion for flowers and fruit, he and Angela mucked in with a vengeance. We have old photographs showing four welly-clad arsonists, casually tending half a dozen large bonfires. Not long after that epic conflagration, the City of White Rock brought in its killjoy no-burn bylaw.

Over the years, we wined and dined, biked and hiked, skied, shared Christmases, and even sailed together. My children came to regard John as an uncle. It was a very great sadness, therefore, when this wonderful friendship suffered its first pruning. 

John remained one of nature’s gentlemen, never yielding to the false gods with which medicine tempts its practitioners. A man for all seasons, John understood and appreciated the inevitable parade of the seasons all around him in his garden. And he appeared to accept the same march within himself. Some of us may rage at the dying of the light, but I never saw this in John. He grew through his 70s with a shrug and a glass or two of wine.

His gardening was studied and knowledgeable. He delighted in germinating unusual flowers from his many travels abroad, bringing seeds into the country concealed within the fluff of his trouser pockets. A large orchard survives him. At one point, I wondered if he planned on installing a cider press in his toolshed. 

Relating to alcohol, it was John who solved the misery of flying overnight to visit relatives in England. John claimed his system was based on the second law of thermodynamics, loosely defined as the more the merrier. He started with a mild hypnotic pharmaceutical, but quickly moved to products fermented or distilled. Traveling steerage during the early clinical trials, John morphed the journey into a scientific assay, carefully studying the soporific beneficences as he sashayed from juniper to grape to grain. After years of selfless experimentation, John lighted upon the precise formulation to achieve his desired objective—a safe, oral, self-administered, light general anesthetic. Sadly, he died before he could publish his findings.

John was a great believer in pharmaceuticals and carried this chemical approach into his garden. Not for John the insecticidal soap or other wishy-washy natural product. He went straight to the systemic pesticides. He wanted the poison in the sap where it could do the most good and be sheltered from the next shower of rain. When challenged on this toxic approach, he did concede the only safe place to store his liver would be in the Canadian Shield. Rarely, he went grocery shopping, and then would carefully navigate away from the organically grown vegetables. He thought he needed as many preservatives as he could get his hands on at his age.

John loved music, theatre, opera, and movies. He read widely, and what he read, he remembered. John’s general knowledge was quite remarkable; before Google, there was John Smith. Truly a living oxymoron—behind the common name lurked an uncommon man.

On the day he died, over a pre-dinner poolside G&T, John told us he was to retire. He was ambivalent about this. I reassured John that, having quit 11 years previously, I still relished the joy of seeing Surrey Memorial Hospital in my rearview mirror for the last time. John left this life suddenly and without warning at the after-dinner table while among friends. Such a postprandial exit from life’s stage is surely a consummation devoutly to be wished. That all of us should be so blessed.
—Gerard Ponsford, MBBS
White Rock

Gerard Ponsford, MBBS,. Dr John Sanderson Smith, 1936–2013. BCMJ, Vol. 56, No. 7, September, 2014, Page(s) 351-352 - Obituaries.

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