A tribute to our founder, Dr. John Evans

John Evans was one of the most remarkable Canadians of his generation, a man who made pioneering contributions to medical and post-secondary education, to research and innovation, global health, philanthropy, public policy, biotech entrepreneurship, business, and to public and non-profit sector governance.

He was also a truly remarkable human being—humble, funny and kind. His generosity of spirit was simply astonishing. That is why he was loved by so many people from all walks of life.

Dr. Evans was a graduate of UTS, and came to the University of Toronto where he graduated with an MD in 1952, winning the silver medal. He attended Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and completed a DPhil on vitamin B12 metabolism. Following Oxford, Dr. Evans trained in internal medicine and cardiology in Toronto, London and Boston, returning to Toronto in 1960.

Even very early in his career, Dr. Evans sought ways to bring innovation to the medical profession. He brainstormed with other opinion leaders about a new approach to educate medical doctors. His proposal to mount a new program at Sunnybrook Hospital was rejected, but his bold idea was embraced by McMaster University where President Harry Thode was looking for a Dean for the new Medical School.

In 1965, at the age of 35, he was appointed as Dean, despite the fact he had not yet risen in the professorial ranks. The McMaster program pioneered problem-based learning and self-directed objective-based learning methods—going against tradition and admitting candidates from many walks of life, setting aside the usual prerequisites. It was decades ahead of its time, but has since been emulated in many places around the world.

In 1972, Dr. Evans returned to Toronto as President of the University of Toronto. By 1978, he was recruited by Pierre Elliott Trudeau to run for office. Although his political aspirations were dashed, he was quickly recruited to the World Bank in Washington—again as a pioneer—starting the Division of Population Health and Nutrition, which he led from 1979 to 1983.

This work had a huge impact in reshaping population health as a field—and laid the foundation for how we now think about factors affecting health status that sit outside the formal healthcare system.

During the 1980s, Dr. Evans held a succession of major roles in a dazzling array of organizations, again often charting new terrain. He was the CEO and Executive Chair of Allelix—one of Canada’s first biotechnology companies. In fact, his search for downtown research space for NPS was catalytic in the creation of MaRS.

If there is no place on earth like MaRS, it is because there was no one on earth quite like John Evans.

Dr. Evans was the first Canadian to be chairman of the Rockefeller Foundation from 1987 to 1995, and he was the founding chair of the Canada Foundation for Innovation from 1997 to 2007. He was also the chair of Torstar Corporation, chair of Alcan Aluminum, and served on the boards of several other corporations including the Royal Bank of Canada.

Dr. Evans’ love of medicine remained a prominent thread throughout his career in business—he may well be the only Canadian to be inducted into both the Canadian Business Hall of Fame and the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame.

He was the founding chair of the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences (ICES) from 1992 to 1998 and founding chair of the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research.

Dr. Evans was also the founder of MaRS, a place where the many facets of his life and career merged, oddly, back to the old wing of the Toronto General Hospital where he slept and studied as a young medical student in the 1950s.

MaRS brought together all the threads of his life—physician, academician and university administrator, biotech entrepreneur, business leader, global health pioneer and master of governance in the non-profit and for-profit sectors.

The launch of MaRS—this big idea—called on all of his creative genius, multidimensional expertise, and the broad networks built over his unprecedented career.

He brought his unique ability to navigate complexity and uncertainty to MaRS—with its diverse stakeholders, large personalities and its palpable risk due to the scale, the visibility, the funding uncertainty and the totally new model as an innovation hub that this project represented. He did this navigation with grace, with generosity—and often, with totally off-the-wall humour!
Dr. Evans also brought to MaRS—and this is perhaps our greatest debt to him—his aspirations for the innovation community, and his ambitions for Canada. He viscerally believed in this country—the potential of its talented people and their ideas, its excellence, its values and its role in the world.

MaRS was Dr. Evans’ last great project, and the one he believed in most fiercely. He devoted every ounce of energy to its creation, until the ravages of Parkinson’s disease took its toll. Right until the end, he wanted to know what was happening here more than anything else.

If there is no place on earth like MaRS, it is because there was no one on earth quite like John Evans.
Dr. Ilse Treurnicht, CEO of MaRS Discovery District
Read Dr. Ilse Treurnicht’s eulogy delivered at Dr. John Evans’ funeral.

Dr. John Evans in his own words

On Building Great Teams

“I’m the luckiest in being able to mobilize people who could share a vision of going forward, who accept it as their own vision, and attack it with the energy that is necessary and (have) the staying power that’s necessary to get these new and innovative programs off the ground.”

“Not consciously, but I think unconsciously I look for the collection of people – the kinds of individuals who bring their own networks to be part of programs going forward.”

On Innovation

“I’m very anxious not to reinvent something, I don’t think that’s innovation.”

On Founding MaRS

“One of my interests was to address the discrepancy between the amount of investment in research and the relatively small portion of that investment that was related to research output that would lead to commercialization.”

“Toronto was not doing well in getting money for its science, and if you could look at increased commercial activity it was striking how poor the performance in Southern Ontario in relation to other parts of Canada and the United States. So I thought it was important to have a more concerted approach to submissions to the federal government…and that was not just more money, but for a vision for research in the areas that made better use of the research being carried out.”

Remembering Dr. John Evans

“It was my very good fortune to get to know John and work with him. In truth, while it was my job as Premier to lead, I was happy to be led by John and inspired by his vision to build a stronger, more innovative Ontario. John was an extraordinary human being. He was as kind and understanding as he was brilliant, accomplished and wise. He truly was a man for all seasons.”
Dalton McGuinty, Premier of Ontario 2003-2013

“I had the privilege of working with John when he was a director of RBC, we co-chaired a committee on commercialization and I had the honour, but impossible task of succeeding him as Chairman of MaRS. There are no Canadians that have had such a profound impact on so many different areas of importance including medicine, education, business, social services and philanthropy and of course innovation which culminated with his founding of MaRS. He was a trailblazer with boundless energy but more importantly was a gentleman who was always compassionate and kind. He touched so many people and while I think of John as a mentor he was even more so an inspiration. Simply he was one of the best men that I have ever known.”
Gordon M. Nixon, Chair, Board of Directors, MaRS Discovery District

“Dr. Evans’ legacy extends well beyond the University of Toronto, and will endure for generations. He made a profound impact on the advancement of Canadian medical education and higher education, on Canada’s capacity for world-leading research and innovation, and on public policy and philanthropy in Canada and abroad. John Evans will be remembered not only as a champion of excellence and innovation, but also as a delightful man who combined extraordinary brilliance with great personal warmth and irrepressible sense of humour.”
Meric S. Gertler, President, University of Toronto

“I would have difficulty thinking of another Canadian who has left such a legacy of achievement, contribution to his city and his country, and affection from all who encountered him. His diminutive frame and gentle manner belied a giant of a man who left an impact everywhere he ventured…he will be greatly missed by all who knew him, and to know him was to love him.”
Hon. John P. Manley, Vice Chair, Board of Directors, MaRS Discovery District; President and CEO, Canadian Council of Chief Executives, Ottawa

“I can’t think of any other Canadian who accomplished so much, and in such varied fields, both in Canada and internationally.”
Tim Brodhead, Former CEO, JW McConnell Family Foundation

“John Evans was my Nelson Mandela. He had the vision, tenacity and dignity of a Mandela, with a lovely sense of humour and a rare humility. Knowing him and working with him was an inspiration. A highlight of my life.”
Susan Smith, Founding Board Member, MaRS Discovery District