The Mark of the Man

It takes great courage to see the world in all its tainted glory and still love it anyway.
Oscar WildeWilde’s quote was the theme of a video shown at a gala black tie dinner held recently to commemorate Dr. Gordon Bell’s 50 years of pioneering in alcohol and drug addiction.

As a long time fan/friend and one-time participant, I was privileged to be there. Now 88, Bell is remembered and revered by tens of thousands in this country, the United States and abroad. Indeed, many of them either owe him their lives or the chance of a second chance. He did not originally envision this field as a career. Once told he lacked the discipline to be a successful physician, he fortunately persisted.

It was in 1943 after serving as a captain with the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps that he became fascinated by the effects of stress on servicemen with adjustment and emotional problems. Others were shell-shock victims.

Back on city streets with his wife Mary and two children (three yet to arrive), he picked up on the belief that disease can be caused by stress — a conviction espoused by the world famous Dr. Hans Selye, and later confirmed by the Worldealth Organization. So he decided to open a clinic for the emotionally disturbed. The patients who showed up, however, had a different problem. They were alcoholics. So he took them in and that was the beginning.

Back then, there were not many choices for drunks. Death or Skid Row were two. A psychiatric hospital or the revolving door justice of drunk court were others. Alcoholic Anonymous, which started in 1935 when two alcoholics — a stock broker and a doctor — came together in Akron, Ohio made limited inroads in Canada and didn’t initially support Bell’s theories.

Linda Bell, the middle of the good doctor’s five children, agreed years ago to work for her father but only for six months. She is now president and CE0 of Toronto’s Bellwood Health Services founded in 1983. She reminisced in her stylish office.

One memorable time, she recalled, was in the mid-seventies when Dr. Bell was speaking at an AA international world conference in New Orleans.

“As he got to the podium,” she relates, “a man in the audience rose and said that while in treatment in a U.S., clinic he had seen Dr. Bell’s films and wanted to thank him for saving his life. Another man brought greetings from a former patient in Texas with sincere thanks for still being around.” “And it went on and on,” Linda Bell said as though feeling again the shiver that went up her spine that day when she realized the scope of her father’s work and the gratitude that was out there. “It must have lasted a good half an hour… one after another.”

There’s not enough space in this column to do justice to the career and list of accomplishments of Dr. Gordon Bell. But Jim Coyle, writing for the Toronto Star titled his tribute: “Gordon Bell, Father of the Second Chance.” Which says it all nicely and succinctly.

One further anecdote follows from Dr. Bell’s book, A Special Calling:

To help with expenses as a medical student, he heard there was a demand for healthy leopard frogs for dissection in physiology classes. He sensed opportunity in growing these critters himself, instead of importing them. He learned one source was in Quebec’s Eastern townships, so he hitch-hiked there to investigate the technique.

Sad to relate, the local burghers were not helpful, wishing to keep their frogs to themselves. But he did not come up empty. He caught a ride home with a French Canadian Jesuit priest.

“We talked about a lot of things,” he writes. “But I will never forget his response when he dropped me off and I thanked him for the ride.” In careful, precise, English the priest said, “It has been a pleasure to be of service to you.” “

It made a powerful impression — the idea of serving others was not just a duty or a moral obligation, but a privilege. The words became the motto of Toronto’s Donwood Institute which he founded, and have been the mark of the man.

With that in mind though, he has done well. It may be our loss that he didn’t get to be prime minister. We could use some of that humility. We could use a lot of it!
The way I see it anyway.