Renowned surgeon Jonathan Meakins goes for master’s in art history

Now 73, Dr. Jonathan Meakins is enrolled as an M.A. student in Fine Arts at Concordia University.
Now 73, Dr. Jonathan Meakins is enrolled as  an M.A. student in Fine Arts at Concordia University.

Now 73, Dr. Jonathan Meakins is enrolled as
an M.A. student in Fine Arts at Concordia University.

Going back to school as a mature student is never easy, especially if you’re over 70.

If you’re also six feet four, a confident and accomplished professional, with an Order of Canada in your lapel, fellow classmates less than half your age may feel intimidated.

You’re sharing class rooms and competing with students in the fulsome energy of youth propelled by ambition. Their brains are not affected by the normal process of ageing, which differs from one individual to another.

But none of this has affected Dr. Jonathan Meakins, former head of surgery at the Royal Victoria and MUHC Hospitals, chair of surgery at McGill, and an expert in immunobiology and surgical infections, from pursuing an advanced degree in art history – visual art being one of his several hobbies.

Now 73, Meakins is enrolled as an M.A. student in Fine Arts at Concordia University. He’s one example of seniors returning to school for advanced study in areas about which they are passionate.

At his charming apartment on Sherbrooke, just around the corner from the university’s downtown campus, Meakins gave me a tour of his carefully selected art collection, notably 16th and 17th century Dutch and Flemish etchings. The collection was gathered over the past 20 years and has been displayed at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

“We’re interested in works on paper – if you’re not an investment banker you can actually acquire prints,” he remarked.

One might think that Meakins, a distinguished researcher with a medical degree from Western and a doctorate from the University of Cincinnati, could well have studied anything on his own.

But he decided that a formal program was what he needed.

It came about after spending six years as the Nuffield Professor of Surgery at Oxford University – the first Canadian named to that position.

“I returned to Montreal, I was 68, and all the jobs I had were occupied by younger guys. They weren’t that interested in having the previous occupant of the job coming around,” he recalled.

Though he had no shortage of hobbies – from bee keeping and growing flowers (perennials) at the gentleman’s farm that he and his wife own at Havelock, to golf, tennis, and fishing – Meakins felt the pull to school – not a Wikipedia education.

His wife, Dr. Jacqueline McClaran, is on a similar path. She’s enrolled in a Bachelor of Theology program at McGill, with one course a term as she works part-time as a physician. She was intrigued by the question of who wrote the Bible, and plans to take two courses a term when she retires.

Meakins attributes his back-to-school move “with the habits of a lifetime.”

“Academic surgery is a competitive world and I learned to be productive as a function of repeated deadlines,” he observed.

“That was the method I used to ensure a steady production, which was the research we were doing. If I didn’t do that, I could see that Parkinson’s Law – work expands to fit the time available for its completion – is very applicable.”

“I recognized fairly early on that if I didn’t have a to-do list and a set of deadlines – I’d worked pretty hard, but didn’t get much done.”

“Even in my life now, I need structure to really learn and complete the task.”

In spite of his distinguished medical career, however, getting into the master’s program was not a slam-dunk.

“I assumed that with my art collection, as a trustee at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts for ten years, on its acquisition committee for 20 years, a member of various committees in the Fine Arts department at Concordia, would make it a no-brainer.”

The department, however, insisted that Meakins first complete three undergraduate courses, dashing his hope that the “previously important person” approach would allow him to leapfrog that stage.

In 2011 he began the first of six courses at the graduate level, taking one course a semester as a part-time student, and a six-year timeline to complete the program.

“I got A’s or A-minuses in the four courses I took,” he said.

The M.A. project is now temporarily on hold since Meakins got involved in preserving some of the heritage that could be lost when the Vic, the Montreal Children’s and Montreal Chest hospitals are closed. This includes art, old instruments, photographs, and furniture that could disappear without an organized and sustained effort to identify and classify the art and heritage material.

Meakins is now the volunteer director of the MUHC’s art and heritage centre, with a team of five and university student volunteers who are working on archiving the material. It keeps him busy between 10 and 20 hours a week. As a result, he has taken a leave of absence from his art history program until the fall of 2015. He then plans to get back to his thesis, which was approved after his supervisor shot down two other ideas, again showing that Concordia was not going to relax its standards for this high-profile student.

His first proposal, to write about his collection, was dismissed. “That’s ridiculous, you know all that stuff,” is how he paraphrased his supervisor, Catherine MacKenzie’s reaction.

She also turned down his idea to write about the MUHC art and heritage project, the role of art and environmental issues in a hospital and its effect on healing, by saying, “You’re going to learn about this on your own.”

Finally, she accepted his proposal to write about the manufactured landscape in Canadian David Milne’s paintings of camps in England and battlefields in Europe during the First World War.

“He painted the destruction of war, which manufactured the landscape.”

He has a lot of legwork ahead of him, including a literature search, and plans to spend more time on the battlefield sites, such as Ypres and Passchendaele, that Milne focused on.

His message to others: “Structure is extremely useful, since we are basically undisciplined. Playing cards on your computer is fun, but it’s a pastime. This is more than a pastime. Learning new stuff as an independent student is a lot of fun and leads to all kinds of interesting conversations.”

His one regret is that it hasn’t turned into a rich social experience. “I’m really a grandfather in these classes. Most of the kids are in their 20s. Only a couple of students have actually come and tried to find out who I am and why I’m doing this.”

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