Dr. Jacalyn Duffin presents the MacLennan lecture in the History of Science and Technology.

Jacalyn Duffin, MD, PhD

Dr. Jacalyn Duffin photo by Wieke Eefting, Utrecht, NL, September 2011

Dr. Duffin is a hematologist and historian who has occupied the Hannah Chair of the History of Medicine at Queen’s University since 1988. A former president of both the American Association for the History of Medicine and the Canadian Society for the History of Medicine, she is the author of eight books and many articles, holds several awards for teaching and research, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences. Her research focuses on disease, technology, religion, and health policy.

Dr. Duffin will speak on her new book project Stanley’s Dream: The Canadian Medical Expedition to Easter Island. The lecture will take place on January 16, 2019 in Alumni Hall, University of King’s College.

Stanley’s Dream: The Canadian Medical Expedition to Easter Island

In 1964, an international scientific team, led by McGill gastroenterologist Stanley Skoryna, convinced Prime Minister Lester Pearson to donate a navy vessel to a plan to document the biosphere of the word’s most remote community: Easter Island. Emerging in a climate of international cooperation, METEI became one of Canada’s contributions to the International Biological Program It was predicated on the imminent prospect of an airport to link this sheltered island with humans, animals, plants, and microbes everywhere else. With World Health Organization support, the scientists would characterize all life forms in terms of genus and species, but also in terms of genetics, physiology, metabolism, and immunology. It would be complete only when repeated decades later–an exercise that never took place.

Few historians have examined this adventure. With special focus on its medical aspects, this paper focuses on its scientific justifications and products through the publications and personal papers of researchers and the ship’s captain, held in archives in Ottawa, Vancouver and Montreal. This evidence is amplified by interviews with surviving scientist-travellers from Canada, US, Sweden, and South Africa.

The team journeyed from Halifax via Panama, transporting scientific apparatus and supplies, including portable buildings for a laboratory compound. Over three months, they documented the size, lung capacity, blood groups, and immune status of the 1000 human inhabitants. They also tried to characterize all the plants, animals, and microbes. They were captivated by the romance of the island’s past–the mysterious moai statues and the disappearance of its dense forest—features popularized by the famous Kon Tiki expedition of Norwegian Thor Heyerdahl in 1947. Aware that their presence might transmit infection, they volunteered medical services. The team returned in February 1965 to analyze mountains of data, leaving behind one doctor and the buildings to serve as a clinic.

Skoryna boasted 100 percent success, but his opinion was quietly contested; relationships were strained, publications few, and several surprise findings limited the impact. Furthermore, in light of postmodern sensitivities, uncomfortable racist overtones underlie the plan. Nevertheless two unexpected and previously unrecognized benefits, concerning polio and cancer chemotherapy, continue to exert influence even now.