Gifted scientist Margaret Thompson had a lasting impact on health care

Posted: December 15, 2014 at 6:42 am

Margaret Thompson was one of Canadas most respected geneticists, a pioneer in genetic counselling and a devoted researcher into the causes of certain diseases.

She also participated in one of the darker chapters in this countrys history.

Hailed as a gifted scientist who had a lasting impact on Canadas health care system, Dr. Thompson also served for two years on the Alberta Eugenics Board, which approved the forced sterilization of individuals deemed unfit to reproduce.

Margaret (Peggy) Anne Wilson Thompson, who died in Toronto on Nov. 3 at the age of 94, was born on the Isle of Man, in England, on Jan. 7, 1920, and was six years old when her family moved to Saskatchewan. Like many young women at the time, she completed teacher training, and taught in rural schools for two years. She graduated from the University of Saskatchewan in 1943 with a degree in biology, and completed a PhD in zoology, specializing in metabolic genetics, from the University of Toronto in 1948.

She spent two years teaching at the University of Western Ontario before moving to the University of Alberta in Edmonton, where she taught zoology and started the Hereditary Genetic Counselling clinic. She also served on the Alberta Eugenics Board from 1960 to 1962, which authorized the sterilization of institutionalized mentally defective people who presented the danger of procreation if discharged and risked transmission of [their] disability to potential children. She was the boards last surviving member, according to the Living Archives on Eugenics in Western Canada.

Eugenics was introduced in 1883 by Francis Galton, who was Charles Darwins cousin, to apply the ideals behind the selective breeding of plants and animals to humans in order to weed out defects, including insanity, criminality and mental incompetence, and improve the quality of the human gene pool. It is widely dismissed today as pseudo-science and a violation of basic human rights.

Founded in 1928 to implement Albertas Sexual Sterilization Act, the rotating, four-person eugenics board approved the mostly involuntary sterilization of 2,834 individuals until it was shut down, and the act repealed, in 1972 by the government of then-premier Peter Lougheed. The only other eugenics board in Canada existed in British Columbia from 1933 to 1973.

In 1999, then-premier Ralph Klein apologized for the Alberta boards work and offered millions of dollars in compensation to survivors.

Dr. Thompsons death notice, the many online condolences and tributes, various biographies, her entry in the Canadian Encyclopedia and, most notably, her 1988 Order of Canada citation none makes any mention of her involvement on the eugenics board. Instead, they focus on the life and work of a protean scientist, mentor and teacher.

[Eugenics] was not a subject that I recall her speaking about, said her son Bruce Thompson, until the mid-1990s, when she informed us that the actions of the board were being investigated and that her testimony would be required. Other than knowing that she was giving testimony in Alberta, I recall no further conversations with her on this matter.

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Gifted scientist Margaret Thompson had a lasting impact on health care

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