Intended for healthcare professionals


Ian Renwick McWhinney

BMJ 2012; 345 doi: (Published 05 November 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e7450
  1. Barbara Kermode-Scott
  1. kermodeb{at}

English general practitioner recognised in Canada as the “father of family medicine”

“If we could all just learn to listen, everything else would fall into place. Listening is the key to being patient centred.”1

Ian McWhinney was a general practitioner born in Burnley, Lancashire, who emigrated to Canada in 1968 and became known as the founding father of family medicine in Canada. McWhinney’s A Textbook of Family Medicine,2 which described and defined the principles and practices of family medicine as a separate and distinct field of practice, has been used worldwide in the medical education of family doctors.

Ian McWhinney was not a big man physically, and was quite frail in his later years, but he possessed a huge intellect and spirit. A student of history and literature, he was also a humble and thoughtful observer of the world, medicine, and human nature. It would be no exaggeration to say that his personal thoughts on general practice and patient care inspired physicians and students globally. When he died, tributes were paid to him from across Canada, as well as in Australia, the United States, Spain, Mexico, Panama, Ecuador, Japan, Turkey, Norway, the Netherlands, South Africa, and Argentina.

Articulating a body of knowledge

By the end of his life McWhinney had become known as a world renowned author, mentor, teacher, scholar, and philosopher. After qualifying he served in the Royal Army Medical Corps in Malaya. In 1954 he entered general practice in Stratford-upon-Avon, where he joined his father, a Scottish born general practitioner. After 14 years in full time general practice, McWhinney emigrated to London, Ontario, in Canada in 1968 to become the inaugural chair of family medicine at the University of Western Ontario. His early work involved challenges, but in time the new academic discipline of family medicine became more accepted. In a convocation address, given at Western on 7 June 2000, he said that he had experienced “great joy and fulfilment” working there, and added: “It was a courageous act for Western to create a chair of family medicine at that time . . . Creating a new academic unit in a university recognises the existence of a body of knowledge. At that time, the body of knowledge we now call family medicine had hardly begun to be articulated. There were many doubters and sceptics . . . The articulation of this knowledge has been one of our chief tasks, and working on this with my colleagues over the past 30 years has been a great experience.”

After stepping down from the chair in 1987, he continued to pursue his research interests as a member of Western’s Centre for Studies in Family Medicine. In 1987 he was appointed medical director of the palliative care service at Parkwood Hospital in London. He held this role for five years.

McWhinney received certification in family medicine in 1970 and became a fellow of the College of Family Physicians of Canada in 1981. He received life membership in 1996.

A humble and gentle man

“As one who was clearly recognised as the father of the discipline of family medicine—the individual whose understanding and describing of the importance of patient centred care and the family physician-patient relationship led to the development of the specialty of family medicine in Canada—Ian McWhinney remained a humble and gentle man,” said Calvin Gutkin, chief executive officer of the College of Family Physicians of Canada. “When I visited with him shortly after his inauguration into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame, while he was very proud of this acknowledgement, he told me that although he was overwhelmed by this recognition, he was most proud of the place that family medicine had established both in academic medicine and in the healthcare system in Canada. We owe that place to him.”

“Over and above his outstanding original thinking that led to major contributions to academic family medicine, Ian was a charming, unassuming, modest person whom everyone liked,” said Reginald Perkin, the college’s executive director from 1985 to 1996.

Nicholas Pimlott, scientific editor of Canadian Family Physician journal, said that McWhinney’s writings and example had been a touchstone throughout his own career in family medicine: “The longer I am in practice the more I find that his ideas and his reflections on what it means to be a generalist physician resonate with me. There was rigour, compassion, and humility in his writing that will live on now that he is gone.”

“Dr McWhinney was a very special man, with patience, wisdom, and a strong moral compass,” said Grant Russell, professor of general practice research in Victoria, Australia. “His view of family medicine and its role in alleviating suffering was ever present. For many of us that perspective has inestimably enriched and redirected our professional lives. Barely a week passes by without me quoting him or thinking of his view of the world.”

“Blessed with a fine mind, Ian had a philosophical disposition, a strong thirst for knowledge, and a deep desire to make a difference in the world,” said his family.3 “He touched many people—patients, colleagues, friends, and caregivers alike—with his unfailing kindness and compassion, his gentle nature, and his interest in everyone he met, qualities that remained with him until the end of his life.”


Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e7450


  • Ian McWhinney, professor emeritus, Department of Family Medicine, School of Medicine and Dentistry, University of Western Ontario (b 1926; q Cambridge/Barts 1949; MD, FRCGP, FCFP, FRP), died from pneumonia after a fall on 28 September 2012.


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