The journalist author investigates the hidden lives of his father and his grandfather, both physicians. He is motivated by the mysterious silence that pervaded the ancestral home in a wealthy Toronto neighborhood, and by the frightening tendency to depression and suicide that stalks his family members like an Irish curse.

He uncovers many details of the early adventures of his parents, the failure of their marriage, and his father’s doomed career. From his beginnings as a debonair socialite, the father, Jack, embarks on a promising medical career as an allergist; however, he virtually sinks into taciturn misery and alcoholic self-destruction, unable to express affection or joy. Jack’s endless travails as a patient through shock therapy, analysis, and heavy psychiatric drugs are presented in merciless detail using hospital records and interviews with caregivers. The author’s self-indulgent anger with his self-absorbed father drives the research deeper into the earlier generation, to learn about the grandfather of whom his parents rarely spoke.

The author's grandfather, Irish-born John Gerald FitzGerald (1882-1940), son of an immigrant pharmacist and an invalid mother, strode through the exciting scientific world of the early twentieth century like a medical Forrest Gump. At first, he is drawn into the new fields of psychoanalysis, psychiatry, and neuropathology; cameo appearances of Freud, Ernest Jones and C.K. Clarke light up the story. But then this elder FitzGerald is swayed by the need to control infections and produce vaccines. He travels Europe and the United States for three years learning bacteriology.

Upon his return to Canada in 1913, he fearlessly launches a Canadian-made solution, outfitting a stable and a horse farm to produce rabies vaccine and diphtheria anti-toxin. The initiative evolves into the famous Connaught Laboratories and the School of Hygiene, its academic arm. Other luminaries enter the story– such as Banting and Best of insulin fame and C.B. Farrar of psychiatry. FitzGerald served as Scientific Director of the International Health Division of the Rockefeller Foundation and as Dean of the University of Toronto medical school.

Nevertheless in his late fifties, having accomplished so much, the grandfather crashes into doubt, depression and self-destruction, believing himself a failure and consumed with guilt for some never-disclosed transgression. Did his stellar achievements, his high expectations, and his baffling demise dictate the collapse of his son Jack?


The title of this memoir is taken from the W.B. Yeats poem, The Wheel, “What disturbs our blood, Is but its longing for the tomb” –a reflection of the work’s major preoccupation with suicide. Indeed Irishness, is a major player, as if that nation’s genetics spawn madness. Another player is the city of Toronto itself and its medical history. 

In 1994, the author published an investigative history of Upper Canada College, the Toronto private school that both he and his father attended; the book resulted in an investigation for sexual abuse. In this present work, he investigates child abuse of a different kind—familial dysfunction.

The events of the two world wars and the achievements of twentieth-century science are carefully interwoven to offer context for the multiple generations. With few exceptions, women – mothers, grandmothers, sisters, aunts –are also portrayed as damaged by their men.

Illustrated with many small black and white photographs of people and places, the work resembles a heavily annotated family album.  It supplies a personalized, private foil to the admiring descriptions of J. G. Fitzgerald in sources such as the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame,

Meticulous attention to detail of place, person, and especially chronological coincidence result in thick description, bordering on the obsessive and the tedious, but redeemed by the engaging tale. In this manner it is reminiscent of the Montreal story, HA! A Self Murder Mystery, by Gordon Sheppard (see this database).

As narrative medicine, the memoir is a psychoanalytic exercise aimed at healing through self discovery – where “self” includes social, cultural, and genetic inheritance. For example, we learn of how the years of research affect the author’s mood, energy, and sexual function.

At the end, despite the enormous effort to uncover the hidden past, the author still seems to feel hard-done-by, blaming his inadequate, unhappy father for a childhood devoid of love and an inheritance that threatens to destroy. But perhaps because of this massive effort of retrospective comprehension, he will chose to live on until his own natural end. The book appeared in his sixtieth year.


Random House Canada

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