Michael Wilcox Perrin convocation address

Anyone in my position today would probably agree that I have two functions to fulfil: an easy one a difficult one. The easy one is to say in all sincerity "thank you"; through you Chancellor and President to the Senate of this University for the great compliment you have paid me in granting me this honorary degree.

To the natural pride which I feel in joining such a distinguished group there is, for me, the added personal pleasure in having this recognition from the University of British Columbia the Province of my birth and the very early years of my life. Since then I have been lucky enough to have been able to maintain contacts with the Dominion as well as with this Province and this University. Perhaps I can now fairly apply the phrase "local boy makes good" to myself.

So I am now left with my second function which, though I rated it as difficult, is one I would like to try to tackle, and that is to say something to all of you who are about to graduate from UBC today. My difficulty comes partly from the fact that I have been clearly briefed by higher authority and must keep within a close time limit.

But I am lucky in that one of the Faculties graduating today is that of Medicine and my own career, admittedly a varied one, has, for more than the last ten years, brought me into close touch with several different aspects of this particular branch of knowledge and of its practical application. It is common-place to say that we are living through a period when the growth of scientific knowledge has had spectacular effects; effects which are not only much greater, but are also changing more rapidly, than in the whole of past history. It is, after all, only during this century that medicine has been able to use drugs, for the prevention and cure of many diseases, which really are effective and therefore, incidentally, are potentially more dangerous if consumed. The scientific knowledge and the techniques which are now available to back up the personal manipulative skill of the surgeon have also made possible new and more complex operations including those involving major organ transplants.

But this only makes it even more important in medicine to remember that we are still dealing with individual human beings. Each with his or her personal character and values which must be taken into account if people are not to he treated as experimental material, and if we are to avoid falling back into an even narrower materialism than that which characterised much of the last century.

And this brings me to the message which I would like to give, not only to those in the Faculty of Medicine or in the related Faculty of Dentistry, but to all those graduating from this University: the need both to think carefully about the meaning of words and to recognise the real significance of the time you have spent as students here.

It is through words that we, as human beings, can communicate with each other; can communicate our thoughts, hopes and fears and can debate abstract ideas; not just the simpler signals of alarm, of hunger and of defence of a territory which apply to the world. Words are the tools of communication but must not be allowed to become the masters, and I would remind you of Humpty Dumpty's dictum "when I use a word it means what I want it to mean".

We all know that the Greeks "had a word for it" as they had words for many, one of which was "tekhne" and which has come down to us in many forms, including "technology". This particular word is in danger of being over-worked and misused and, indeed, the meaning of the original Greek word, as they used it is by no means clear. It has usually been translated as "art" or "craft". Both the English and the Latin versions of the best known of the Hippocratic aphorisms is "Life is short; the art is long". I suggest that our derived word 'technology' as it is defined in the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology ought to be used as meaning "the scientific study of the arts and, by the arts, I mean those branches of knowledge the humanities if you like which involve people as individual human beings and which are amenable to their control.

On this basis, medicine is as much a technology as is engineering or, for that matter, as is business administration. Medicine, to stick to my main theme, never has been, and never can be, either an art or a science. Increasingly it is an example of technology in which science, and the scientific method, can be applied to the art of dealing with the problems of health and disease which affect individual human beings.

Those of you who will be going into the practice of medicine will, I am sure, appreciate why medical schools everywhere in the world are now so much concerned with the proper curriculum and with the right balance between specialised scientific knowledge and the clinical approach to individual patients.

And, finally, a word to all those graduating from this University. The site, the buildings and the facilities are splendid and are still growing and I need not tell you how high its reputation stands, far outside British Columbia, but the real justification for a university, and the advantage to those who have had the experience of life within one, is not that of having been filled most efficiently with a mass of factual information of which, I can assure you, you will make less and less use as your life goes on but of having played your individual parts in a composite "whole body of teachers and scholars engaged in the higher branches of learning". (Again I am quoting from the Oxford dictionary of English Etymology). This University of British Columbia, which is yours by right of study and now mine by adoption, has a great opportunity to maintain and increase its reputation and to add constructively to the present world wide debate, too often destructive and uncritical, on the responsibilities of those who, collectively, make up the whole body.

It only remains for me to wish all those graduating today the best of fortune based on your splendid start and, again, to express my thanks for the honour which has been done to me.

9 May 1969.