Office of the Vice-Principal (Research)

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Office of the Vice-Principal (Research)
Office of the Vice-Principal (Research)

Dr. Jacalyn Duffin

Each year, the Prizes for Excellence in Research are awarded to top-ranking researchers at Queen’s who have made significant contributions to their field, paving the way for future scholars to follow in their footsteps and expanding the innovative world of research at the university. Recently, Leigh Cameron interviewed each recipient of the 2015 prize, exploring their research interests and inspirations.

[Dr. Jacalyn Duffin]
Photo of Jacalyn Duffin by Bernard Clark

Dr. Jacalyn Duffin is the Hannah Chair in the History of Medicine with cross-appointments in the Departments of Medicine, Philosophy, History, the School of Nursing and the Faculty of Education. She has written several influential books, including Medical Miracles: Doctors, Saints and Healing in the Modern World (2009). She is a Fellow of both the Royal Society of Canada and the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences.

What drew you to this field of research?

I trained first as a doctor and specialized in internal medicine and hematology, but I always felt like I was missing something. When I ended up in Paris because of my husband’s work, but couldn’t practice medicine there, I did a PhD in history. I discovered that I loved historical research and I was drawn to history for what was missing in medicine.

Who has been your biggest inspiration?

Probably my students, most of all. They ask me questions I can’t answer, and that makes me curious. I think the next is my patients, who are in precarious situations and confronting things that can’t easily be solved. I like to figure out where those problems came from, and one good way of getting at it is history. I have to also mention my PhD supervisor in Paris: Mirko Grmek. As a physician and historian, his example showed me that I could do both. He also refused to stick to certain periods or places. History tends to get carved up that way, but he just followed ideas. He was a great mentor.

What’s the most interesting place you’ve visited for your research?

Hands-down the Vatican Archives! As a hematologist, many years ago, I was asked to read a set of bone marrows. It was just a consult, but I thought it was for a lawsuit because they couldn’t tell me anything about the patient. It turns out that the patient had survived the most aggressive form of leukemia, and contended that she had been healed through the intercession of Marie Marguerite d’Youville, who was a candidate to become Canada’s first saint. This leukemia case became the miracle applied to d’Youville’s cause – I was invited to the canonization.

At the time, I was suspicious of the whole “sainthood” business, but it made me wonder “what are all the other miracles?” So I set about to investigate, and I ended up examining at least one miracle for every canonization for the last 400 years. They’re all in the Vatican Archives, and I got completely hooked! I found amazing stories and discovered that every single one involved the most up-to-date medicine imaginable. That was something no one had ever been able to say before.