Dr. Wilfred Gordon Bigelow was born June 18, 1913 in Brandon, Manitoba, the son of Grace Ann Carnegie Gordon Bigelow and Dr. Wilfred Abram Bigelow. Dr. W.A. Bigelow (1879-1966) was a general practitioner and surgeon, a charter member of the American College of Surgeons (1913), and the founder of the first private medical clinic in Canada, in Brandon, 1913.
Dr. W.G. Bigelow was educated at Brandon collegiate, Brentwood College in Victoria, B.C., Brandon College (1931), and the University of Toronto (B.A. 1935, M.D. 1938, M.S. 1938). His post-graduate medical/surgical training included surgical residencies under Dr. W.E. Gallie at the Toronto General Hospital (TGH), 1938-1941, and a Research Fellowship at Johns Hopkins University Hospital, 1946-47, where he trained in vascular and cardiac surgery under Dr. Richard Bing and Dr. Alfred Blalock, the founder of modern cardiac surgery.
In July 1941, Dr. Bigelow married Margaret Ruth Jennings, then Assistant Head Nurse at TGH. During the Second World War Dr. Bigelow served in the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps (R.C.M.A.C.) Field Transfusion Unit, 1941-42, and then as Graded Surgeon with the 6th Canadian Casualty Clearing Station (a mobile army surgical hospital) in England, Normandy and Northwestern Europe, 1942-45.
Following the war, and the completion of his research fellowship at Johns Hopkins, Dr. Bigelow returned to Toronto and was appointed to the surgical staff at TGH in 1947, and as Associate Professor in the Department of Surgery at the University of Toronto in 1948. In 1953 he was appointed Head, 3rd Division General Surgery at TGH. From 1956 until his retirement in 1977 Dr. Bigelow served as Head of the Cardiovascular Surgery Division at TGH, and from 1947 to 1977 as Director of the Cardiovascular Laboratory in the Banting Research Institute, where he and his colleagues and research assistants conducted pioneering research in hypothermia, hibernation, and cardiac pacemaker technology.
In addition to his TGH and University of Toronto appointments, Dr. Bigelow served on the surgical staff of Sunnybrook Hospital and as Consultant in Cardiovascular Surgery to Women's College Hospital. Dr. Bigelow's post-retirement appointments include positions as Professor Emeritus of Surgery at the University of Toronto, and as Consulting Surgeon at TGH. From 1977 to 1979 Dr. Bigelow served as Executive Director of the Toronto General Hospital Foundation.
Throughout his career Dr. Bigelow has made numerous important contributions to medical science in general, and to the development of cardiac surgery and the treatment of heart disease in particular. In 1949 he performed only the second mitral commissurotomy operation in Canada, pioneering what would become a standard closed-heart surgical procedure throughout the 1950s. In the 1950s Dr. Bigelow was one of only two or three surgeons to adopt the Internal Mammary Artery Implantation (or Vineberg) operation. His extensive practice in this procedure and corollary clinical research proved the operation's effectiveness, as documented in a paper he and his colleagues presented at the American Association for Thoracic Surgery meeting in 1962 and published the following year. This prompted general acceptance of the Vineberg procedure and led ultimately to the development of modern aorto-coronary bypass surgery.
In 1951, in collaboration with Dr. J.C. Callaghan, and Dr. J.A. Hopps of the National Research Council of Canada, Dr. Bigelow developed and tested the first artificial cardiac pacemaker for human use. Their design, as reported in a paper published that year, formed the basis for subsequent technological developments and refinements leading to the modern implantable cardiac pacemaker.
Between 1947 and 1965, in collaboration with research associates at the Cardiovascular Laboratory in the Banting Research Institute, Dr. Bigelow performed a series of experiments to establish the physiological effects, medical benefits, and a safe technique for inducing and reversing human hypothermia. This work made possible the first open-heart surgery in humans in 1953, and formed the practical and theoretical basis for what has become the standard practice of protective cooling of the heart during surgery.
Between 1952 and 1956 Dr. Bigelow worked to initiate the planning and secured funding for construction of the TGH Cardiovascular Investigative Unit. The Unit opened in 1956 and facilitated the efficient processing of heart catheterizations, a critical process for the diagnosis of heart disease. In 1956 Dr. Bigelow developed and assumed the direction of the TGH Division of Cardiovascular Surgery, one of the first open-heart surgery teams in Canada.
In 1958 Dr. Bigelow lobbied for and directed the opening of the TGH Cardiovascular Surgery Unit, streamlining cardiac surgery and post-operative care at the hospital. Also in 1958, Dr. Bigelow helped to organize the first Canadian inter-hospital training program in cardiovascular surgery (combining the staff and facilities of TGH, Toronto Western Hospital and St. Michael's Hospital). Between 1958 and Dr. Bigelow's retirement in 1977, approximately seventy surgeons passed through this program.
As an academic surgeon and clinical scientist Dr. Bigelow has published voluminously, with over 120 papers in various medical/scientific journals. Articles of particular significance include "General Hypothermia for Experimental Intracardiac Surgery" (with J.C. Callaghan and J.A. Hopps), 1950, a revolutionary report of preliminary research into the use of hypothermia to protect the heart during surgery; "An Electrical Artificial Pacemaker for Standstill of the Heart" (with J.C. Callaghan), 1951, describing the first artificial pacemaker for human use; and "Internal Mammary Artery Implantation for Coronary Heart Disease" (with H. Basian and G.A. Trusler), 1963, an important clinical vindication of the effectiveness of the Vineberg operation.
Following his retirement from active surgery in 1977, Dr. Bigelow has concentrated on writing medical history, publishing Cold Hearts: The Story of Hypothermia and the Pacemaker in Heart Surgery (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1984), for which he won the Hannah Medal, presented by the Royal Society of Canada, 1986, and Mysterious Heparin: The Key to Open Heart Surgery (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1990).
Dr. Bigelow has been consistently distinguished as an executive member of numerous medical societies, including the Canadian Federation of Cardivoascular and Thoracic Surgeons (President 1967); the James IV Association of Surgeons (Board of Directors 1967); the Society for Vascular Surgery (President 1968-69); the Canadian Cardiovascular Society (Vice President 1969, President 1970-72); the International Cardiovascular Society (Vice President 1956, 1971); the American Association for Thoracic Surgery (President 1974); and the Ontario and Canadian Heart Foundations (Board of Directors from 1970).
He has been an active member of many national and international associations and an Honoary Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of England. Dr. Bigelow has also served on several important medical-scientific boards and committees.
Among the many awards and honours conferred on Dr. Bigelow in the course of his career are included the Lister Prize and Peters Prize, University of Toronto, 1949; the Gairdner Foundation Award, 1959; the Centennial Medal, 1967; the Charles Mickle Fellowship, University of Toronto, 1973; the National Heart Foundation of Canada Award of Merit and Queen's Medal, 1977; the City of Toronto Award of Merit, 1978; an Honorary Dr. Med. degree, Hamburg, 1990; the Commemorative Medal on the 125th Anniversary of Canadian Confederation, 1992; a D.Sc. (honoris causa) degree, University of Toront, 1992; and the Starr Medal, presented by the Canadian Medical Association, 1992. In 1981 he was invested as an Officer of the Order of Canada and in 1997 he was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame.
In addition to his professional medical and scientific interests, Dr. Bigelow has maintained an abiding interest in and involvement with nature and the cause of environmental conservation, as an avid outdoorsman, hunter, and angler. He has served as the Chairman (1958-87) and member of the Board of Trustees (1980-90) of the Nature Conservancy of Canada.