Dr. David Stephen, the last of the Manitoulin health care’s old guard

Dr. David Stephen, who lived on Manitoulin Island for more than 50 years and served many families as a doctor, died last week at the age of 91.

LITTLE CURRENT – They were a hardy lot, those medical professionals who came to practice as a family doctor on Manitoulin in the mid-20th century. This past week the Island bid adieu to Dr. David Stephen, a devoted family man, soldier, sailor, doctor, surgeon, musician, physiotherapist and fitness buff whose gruff Scottish demeanor masked a man who cared deeply about his patients and their health.

Dr. Stephen arrived on Manitoulin in 1967 from his native Scotland and he credited the late Dr. Jack Bailey and the late Barney Turner for convincing him and his new wife Dorothy to give Manitoulin a look. Dr. Bailey was on the hunt for a surgeon for the Island and Mr. Turner had spotted the application forms Dr. Stephen had filled out at the Canadian consulate. 

A 3 am phone call awoke the newlyweds (Dr. Bailey had forgotten the time differential) and a series of events was set in motion that led Dr. Stephen to our shores.

“David had considered Esterhazy in Saskatchewan, but he didn’t care for the people he met there,” recalled his wife Dorothy Stephen. “He found the people on Manitoulin much more to his liking.” Coming from a rural region of Scotland, Dr. Stephen wanted to find a practice in Canada that was a close match. Manitoulin fit the bill.

“We were so lucky to have him here,” said colleague Roy Jeffery, one of the few Island doctors who was practicing when Dr. Stephen retired. “He kind of lived in the shadow of Doc Bailey, but he was an incredibly talented surgeon. They are a dying breed but offer such an essential service to the Island.”

Trained under some of the most accomplished surgeons in the British Isles, Dr. Stephen could easily have chosen to take up a prestigious teaching post had he so wished, noted Dr. Jeffery. “Instead he chose to come to us, and we were tremendously enhanced by his presence.”

Dr. Jeffery recalled that when Dr. Stephen arrived on Manitoulin the Island tended to experience a lot of trauma injuries, something Dr. Stephen excelled at. “It saved a lot of people a quick ride over to Sudbury,” he said. In many cases, the quick response made possible by Dr. Stephen undoubtedly saved many lives.

“He was a great guy to work with,” said Dr. Jeffery. “We will all miss him.”

A voracious reader, Dr. Stephen somehow managed to devour at least a couple of books a week, both medical journals and works of fiction. This stood Dr. Stephen in good stead as he also dearly loved a good debate. “Our house growing up was always full of books,” said his son Iain. “There were piles of British Journal of Medicine volumes and other books.”

“Sedentary” is the last word anyone would use to describe Dr. Stephen. “David liked sports, especially outdoor activities,” said Ms. Stephen. “He wasn’t one for board games and the like.” He could be found jogging down North Channel Drive where the family settled in after their arrival or lobbing tennis balls down at the old Low Island courts. In addition to tennis, Dr. Stephen took up cross-country skiing, swimming, snowmobiling and badminton—and thoroughly enjoyed boating and a run down a country road on a motorcycle. He was a four-seasons kind of guy, and Canada’s environment fit the bill perfectly.

Dr. David Stephen with his wife Dorothy, enjoying some entertainment aboard a cruise.

Although he did not enjoy “travelling” as such, Dr. Stephen did very much enjoy being places, and the family kept a condo in Aruba where he could indulge in snorkeling and swimming during breaks in the winter months.

Other regular social activities included Robbie Burns Day celebrations with the Manitoulin cadet corps.

When it came to practicing medicine on the Island, there were times, sometimes stretching into weeks, where Dr. Stephen was holding down the fort, medically speaking, all by himself.

“I remember one time when old Doc Henry wasn’t around and Dr. Bailey had hurt his back,” said his son Iain. “The phone could ring at all times of the day and night.” Dr. Stephen took it all in stride—when it came to legitimate health concerns, his patience for his patients knew few bounds. For over 30 years, until his retirement in 1998, Dr. Stephen was focussed on his patients and the health and welfare of his community.

Dr. Stephen is survived by his wife Dorothy, with whom he shared a wonderful 64-year partnership and their children Alastair (Michele), Shirley and Iain (Kristian).