Jock Murray (Profile)

If Aaron Sorkin doesn't have Jock Murray's number on speed dial, he should. Sorkin, creator of the television hit The West Wing, could learn a thing or two from the Dalhousie University neurologist.

Murray, Jock (Profile)

If Aaron Sorkin doesn't have Jock Murray's number on speed dial, he should. Sorkin, creator of the television hit The West Wing, could learn a thing or two from the Dalhousie University neurologist. Murray is an internationally recognized authority on multiple sclerosis, the disease that afflicts Josiah Bartlet, the fictitious president in Sorkin's drama. And the fact that Murray lives in Halifax didn't stop him from being selected in 1995 to join a group of physicians asked to come up with a process for treating a sitting U.S. president who became medically incapacitated. In a crunch, Murray - who has written or co-authored 11 books on a broad range of subjects - might be able to pound out a decent West Wing script.

If he only had the time. In an age when the term is applied to every Hollywood actor with a garage band, Renaissance man has become a cliché. But Murray does seem to personify the phrase. Forget about the honorary degrees, the Order of Canada, the slew of prestigious professional distinctions for his work as an educator, researcher and writer. How many medical researchers host touchy-feely reading getaways for physicians? How many hard-headed doctors - he is the only Canadian ever to chair the prestigious American College of Physicians - are equally comfortable lecturing about St. Luke the patron saint of medicine or the art of the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo?

Murray, 64, is also an expert in the history of medicine and the maladies of famous historical figures. In July, he delivered a lecture in London on the medical references in The Count of Monte Cristo. He returned last month to speak on the medical ills of the 18th-century man of letters Samuel Johnson. But don't mistake him for just another guy with an eclectic collection of hobbies. Murray is the living embodiment of a philosophy that connects all the seemingly disparate elements of his career. "People often think of medicine as just a science," he says. "But I think medicine is a very broad concept. It has relationships to society, to history, art, philosophy and theology. To be a good doctor you really have to understand this."

Which is why he created Canada's only official medical humanities program, at Dalhousie, in 1992. Then dean of the medical school, he knew students were being well taught in the science of medicine. What worried him was that universities continued to turn out doctors who treated their patients as "cases" to be examined, diagnosed and operated on, rather than real people with feelings and fears. For too long, Murray felt, the human side of medicine had been ignored. "A medical textbook will tell you about the anatomy of a person," he says. "But if you really want to understand the human condition - how people feel about themselves, their lives and their illness - then you are better off reading the poems of William Carlos Williams or looking at the paintings of Robert Pope."

Robert Pope? A Halifax painter who captured his long, ultimately unsuccessful battle with Hodgkin's disease on canvas, Pope was one of the first artists Murray recruited to help turn out warmer, more humane doctors. Poets, painters, novelists, thinkers - Murray's program has welcomed anyone who can illuminate some new, or unexplored, connection between medicine and the larger world. Current students can take elective courses in everything from the therapeutic effects of music to the writings of Anton Chekhov. They've heard lectures on traditional Mohawk midwifery and the interaction between medicine and literature.

Expressing yourself is big part of what the medical humanities program is about. Students, if so inclined, can play in a concert band or join a choir. They're encouraged to attend the regular monthly dinner meetings of the Dalhousie Society for the History of Medicine. They can take in the brown-bag lunches on history, ethics, literature and art. There's even a student art show built around a medical theme - last year it was sexual dysfunction. Sarah Cook, 23, from Truro, N.S., found time during her first year of medical studies to orchestrate a performance by nine students to show that storytelling can be a valuable tool for physicians. "We're lucky to have this program," says Cook. "It shows us there's a more broad-minded approach to medicine than just looking into a microscope."

Being well-rounded also gives students better balance in their lives. Murray says they'll discover just how critical that is once they step out into the real world. His own epiphany came as a newly minted graduate practising medicine outside Fredericton in 1963, when he realized he had stepped onto a vicious treadmill. Most doctors, he quickly learned, ignored their families and their personal lives because they were addicted to the immediate satisfaction that comes from seeing patients. The upshot: personal relationships crumble, physicians' lives suffer and so, sooner or later, do their patients. "The good doctor," stresses Murray, "is not someone who works all the time."

Those words sound a touch ironic coming from a man who never seems to stop. But the married father of four grown children and five grandchildren gets far too much satisfaction from his varied professional lives to ever consider them work. Up at 6 a.m. and at his desk by 7:45, he keeps a schedule befitting the son of a seven-day-a-week newspaper editor and a homemaker mother of 10. In his youth, he wanted to become a medical artist, a fitting ambition for a boy with a knack for drawing and science. But after a science program at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S., he enrolled in Dalhousie med school, then specialized in neurology at the University of London.

From the start he was intrigued by Nova Scotia's abnormally high rate of multiple sclerosis. Sufferers of the neurological disorder were pretty much on their own - in the mid-1960s there wasn't a single MS specialist in all of Canada. Murray wanted to fill the gap. As dean of medicine at Dalhousie, he put together a multi-disciplinary approach to treating the disease that included doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, speech therapists and psychologists. The upshot: a North America-wide network of health-care professionals aimed at collecting data and information about caring for MS sufferers.

He's no slouch on the research side, either. As director of the Dalhousie MS Research Centre, he joined five Americans in designing a clinical trial that demonstrated that injecting the drug Interferon Beta-1A soon after the first signs of MS can slow its progress.

Not bad for an acclaimed neurologist whose legacy could as easily be a new breed of kinder, gentler physicians as his help for MS sufferers. Then again, Murray, who likes to windsurf and ocean kayak on those rare moments when he isn't writing, lecturing, teaching or doing research, is the epitome of his abiding belief: that it's possible for all physicians to reconcile the humanistic with the scientific. "It's a struggle," he acknowledges, "but the good doctor manages to find that balance."

See also MULTIPLE SCLEROSIS SOCIETY OF CANADA.

Maclean's October 21, 2002