Dr Robert John Cowan, 1917–2014

portrait of the late Cowan
Dr Robert J. Cowan, a pioneer plastic surgeon in British Columbia, died peacefully at home on 21 April 2014.

Born in Scarborough, Ontario, and raised in Toronto, Dr Cowan graduated from the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto in 1941. The following year he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force and was posted to British Columbia, where he served in the Aleutian Islands and on the west coast of Vancouver Island before being transferred to Shaughnessy Veterans’ Hospital at the end of the Second World War. 

With encouragement from Dr R.G. Langston, he later returned to Toronto to qualify as a plastic surgeon. After spending 3 years in Toronto and at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London, England, he passed his fellowship exams in 1949 and returned to Vancouver. In those early years he had the opportunity to operate 6 days a week, with Sunday visits to his patients, and also pursue all aspects of his specialty, from hand surgery to burns. Long before medicare, he lived “25 hours a day,” trying to get the plastic and reconstructive surgery patients into a single ward, answering night calls from all across the Lower Mainland, working 1 day a week at Shaughnessy to operate on wounded veterans, and eventually helping establish the burn unit at Vancouver General Hospital (VGH).

He was a board member at VGH, an active member of the Pacific Northwest Plastic Surgery Society, a member of the American College of Surgeons, and an elected fellow of the American Hand Society. He also served as a clinical professor at UBC from 1952 to 1986.

Before he retired, he twice volunteered for Care Medico—in Malaysia in 1967 and Afghanistan in 1970. The second tour enabled him to pursue his lifelong interest in the travels of Alexander the Great, touring most countries of the Middle East.

Once retired, he enjoyed golfing with friends and hiking. After his eyesight began to decline he continued his travels in Asia, Europe, Australia, and locally in Vancouver and the Pacific Northwest until a broken hip restricted him more to his home and garden. He enjoyed listening to audiobooks, opera, and Stuart McLean, and had books on history, exploration, geology, and many other subjects read to him. He watched movies, golf, and documentaries with the help of a narrator, and was taken for drives and walks.

Dr Cowan was predeceased by his wife, Alma, and is survived by his three daughters, four grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.
—Jane Cowan, PhD

With the death of Dr Cowan on 21 April we lost an important contributor to local medical history. Dr Cowan joined Dr R.G. Langston in the practice of plastic surgery in 1949 and brought to the community a high level of professionalism that persisted throughout his 39 years in practice. He rapidly won the respect of his colleagues for his integrity, deportment, and outstanding surgical skills. His recognition went well beyond the local community. He was elected president of the Canadian Society of Plastic Surgeons and member of the prestigious American Association of Plastic Surgeons.

I met Bob during my first year of surgical training at Shaughnessy Hospital in 1956. The next year I completed a research project under his tutelage in the animal laboratory at Vancouver General Hospital. Dr Cowan encouraged me in my desire to train in plastic surgery and recommended that I seek a position in Britain. With his support I procured a job in Edinburgh and later at the Great Ormond Street Hospital. Anne and I both enjoyed life in the UK and were very comfortable there when Bob wrote to me saying it was time to come home. We worked together at VGH, developing a first-class plastic surgery unit, burn unit, and training program.

What do I remember most about Bob? His surgical skills were remarkable, but more than that he was always a student. Before the term lifelong learning came into common use, he personified it. No publication related to his specialty escaped his eye. He read every article, no matter where it was published, and used this knowledge to enhance his skills to the benefit of his patients. To the residents fortunate to train with him he was an excellent role model. His care was exemplary, he was always professional with his colleagues and patients, and he taught by example the importance of continual learning. During his last year of practice at age 71, he was still enthusiastically discussing with residents the contents of the first issue of a new journal, Oculoplastic Surgery. Dr Cowan touched many lives. I am fortunate that mine was one of them.
—A. Douglas Courtemanche, MD

Jane Cowan, PhD,, Douglas J. Courtemanche, MD, MS, CRCSC. Dr Robert John Cowan, 1917–2014. BCMJ, Vol. 56, No. 7, September, 2014, Page(s) 350-351 - Obituaries.

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