Donald Low

BMJ 2013; 347 doi: (Published 04 November 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f6258
  1. Barbara Kermode-Scott, Canada
  1. kermodeb{at}

The “face of medicine’s response to SARS” during the outbreak in Canada who posthumously fronted a pro-assisted suicide campaign

Donald Low was an infectious diseases expert, an educator, researcher, born leader, and strategist. Although widely respected by colleagues in Canada and internationally, he came to the public’s attention during the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in Canada in 2003 when he provided information to the media on a daily basis. Forty four Canadians died during the SARS outbreak, and at one point Low was quarantined at home for 14 days after contact with an infected colleague.

Ten years later, in February 2013, he was diagnosed as having a brain stem tumour. Eight days before his death, Low went on camera for the last time. He was no longer the healthy energetic man Canadians remembered from the SARS crisis. In the video1 Low was frail and clearly dying. He urged Canada to reopen the debate on assisted suicide for terminally ill patients, change the law, and legalise assisted suicide. Within two weeks the seven minute video had almost 70 000 views. Low’s plea reignited the assisted suicide debate in Canada.

“I’m going to die, but what worries me is how I’m going to die,” said Low. “Am I going to end up being paralysed and have to be carried from the bathroom to the bed? Am I going to have trouble swallowing? Things like (what) the end is going to look like. That’s what bothers me the most.” Addressing those opposed to assisted suicide, Low pleaded for a change in mindset. “I wish they could live in my body for 24 hours, and I think they would change that opinion… Why make people suffer for no reason when there’s an alternative? I just don’t understand.”

After working in Los Angeles and his home town of Winnipeg, Donald Low moved to Ontario. He was microbiologist in chief at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto from 1985 until his retirement in 2013, medical director of the public health laboratory of the Ontario Agency for Health Protection and Promotion from 2005 to 2012, and head of the division of microbiology in the department of laboratory medicine and pathobiology at the University of Toronto from 1998. His research focused on epidemiology and the mechanisms of antimicrobial resistance to pathogens, and he was an expert on necrotising fasciitis. He published more than 170 papers in peer reviewed journals and was a reviewer for several organisations and journals, including the Medical Research Council, Health and Welfare Canada, NEJM, JAMA, and PNAS. He was also an associate editor of the Canadian Journal of Infectious Diseases.

Low had a key leadership role in the creation and development of Public Health Ontario. He was also instrumental in the renewal of the public health laboratories after SARS. “Don’s lasting legacy for public health is a renewed and reinvigorated public health system ready to respond to infectious disease challenges. We are grateful for his passion, commitment and talent,” said Vivek Goel, president and chief executive officer, Public Health Ontario. During the SARS outbreak, Low worked closely with the association to provide Canada’s medical professionals with the latest clinical information on the diagnosis and treatment of SARS via an online interactive discussion forum.

Low leaves his wife, Maureen Taylor, and three children from a previous marriage.


Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f6258


  • Donald Low (b 1945; q University of Manitoba, Canada, 1972), died from a brain stem tumour on 18 September 2013.


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