Historian Michael Bliss wrote about Kingsville and how the town shaped his life

It was 1955, a Sunday, and Kingsville doctor Quartus Bliss was playing scrabble with his 14-year-old son, Michael. His office doorbell rang.

At the door was a police officer with a heavily intoxicated man, his cheek deeply slashed. Dr. Bliss was in failing health and because Michael was expected to follow him into the medical profession, he wanted his son to watch and learn as he stitched the inside and outside of the man’s cheek.

“As I sat and watched my father sew up his patient that Sunday afternoon, I thought … how awful it would be … to spend life doing this kind of thing,’ Michael Bliss later wrote. “Medicine was not for me.”

Bliss went on to become one of Kingsville’s most famous exports, studying history at the University of Toronto and eventually becoming a professor emeritus.

He authored numerous books on Canadian history, was awarded the Order of Canada and, in 2016, became the first historian to be inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame. One of his books, the Discovery of Insulin, is expected to be republished next year to mark the 100th anniversary of the drug’s discovery.

Bliss died May 18, 2017, at age 76. Lengthy obituaries were written in the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star and the New York Times, but little was written locally to mark his passing.

“He was very ambitious guy,” said Prof. Jack Granatstein, a friend and fellow historian. “He wanted to be the best historian in Canada and he may very well have been.

“He was certainly the best Canadian medical historian. He wrote big, important books on medicine.”

Another of his books, Plague: A Story of Smallpox in Montreal published in 1991, is pertinent to our times. It chronicles how bungling by doctors and officials with the Montreal board of health in the 1880s allowed the smallpox virus to spread and ultimately kill 3,000 people – despite the availability of vaccines. A docudrama based on the book was made in 2010, starring Windsor’s Colm Feore. It includes lengthy interviews with Bliss.

“He comments in the documentary that little things go wrong, then more things and everything collapses,” said Elizabeth Bliss, his widow.

Mrs. Bliss, who is from Harrow, said family and friends like Granatstein have speculated what her husband might have said about the coronavirus and Canada’s response to the pandemic.

“I think it’s fair to say he would not have been critical of the scientific community and would have looked at it from an historian’s point of view,’’ she said.

He had a fine sense of the English language and he was able to define things clearly. He had an opinion on things.

In Writing History: A Professor’s Life, he writes extensively about Kingsville, his unique upbringing and how both shaped his career as an historian.

He writes about a bucolic town with most of its original Victorian buildings still intact and unmarred by questionable development, of milk delivered by horse-drawn carriages, of Saturday matinees at the Roxy theatre and kids swimming off the coal dock at Kingsville harbour during a hot, humid day. There is also some regret.

“Our old house is gone,” he writes. “It was quite beautiful, built in 1914 with red brick … white trim, a vaguely Spanish or Californian red-tile roof….” The property, just east of the old firehall, is now the site of a flooring store and parking lot. The home, referred to by locals as the Bliss House, was built by his wife’s great-grandfather.

In his memoirs, Bliss writes at length about his difficult relationship with his mother. Anne Crowe Bliss wanted all her three sons to succeed academically – to be the best.

When Bliss was in Grade 8 his mother was determined he would win the Nelson Shield, a prize awarded to the top student at Kingsville Public School and won 10 years earlier by Bliss’s older brother, Jim.

There was one obstacle: Annetta Conklin, now Annetta Dunnion, the daughter of a prominent Kingsville family. That year, she won the prize.

“I didn’t know what the (Nelson Shield) was,” Dunnion said. “I felt bad in a way because it might have meant more to Michael than me.”

Dunnion said there were a number of exceptional students in their year and she had no sense Bliss was any different from many of their classmates. That feeling persisted through high school and only changed once they were in university, Dunnion at McMaster, Bliss at the University of Toronto.

“It was around Christmastime and he gave me a ride back to Kingsville and I saw a whole different side to him.

“He had a fine sense of the English language and he was able to define things clearly. He had an opinion on things.”

Dunnion said she followed Bliss’s career and attended a talk he gave in 2012 at the Kingsville library about his memoirs.

His wife, Liz, also remembers the visit and how much Bliss enjoyed being among old friends.

“He had a great time. What author wouldn’t enjoy people fawning over him and welcoming home a native son.”

Jack Granatstein

Granatstein, a history professor at York University in Toronto, said Bliss will be remembered as a rarity: an historian who was also a public intellectual.

“Michael was arguably the most prominent and arguably the most respected. He was sensible, articulate, always available, could write on demand (and) appear on television.”

The 100th anniversary of insulin’s discovery is next year and Granatstein and University of Toronto Press are working to republish the Discovery of Insulin to mark Canada’s most famous contribution to the world of medicine.

“It will be a bestseller,” Granatstein said.

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