Jim McEwen - Convocation Remarks
May 31, 2011

Madam Chancellor, Mr President, honoured guests, graduands, ladies and gentlemen.

It is an honour to be awarded this degree and to be a part of this convocation. Like all graduating here, there are many people who made today possible. To my family and friends, to my teachers, professors and colleagues – thank you. Two of my grandchildren are here - and one grandson, baby Jimmy McEwen, is exactly one year old today. We’re celebrating together.

Getting an honorary degree is something like being invited to your own funeral. You ask yourself questions like – Is this a sign my career has peaked? Is the end near? Should I change my will?

Long ago, the philosopher Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living”. And receiving an honorary degree provides a unique opportunity to examine what makes a professional life meaningful, and why.

Looking back, it was 40 years ago this very week that I received my first degree, from Walter Gage, the UBC President then. Walter Gage was also my first-year math teacher, and he introduced me to all the possibilities of a university education. Recently, I learned that he had gone to the same elementary school as me. He must have had some outstanding teachers of his own there, because I know he kept his elementary school awards all his life. Those awards are now in the UBC archives. I’m honoured that a teacher from that same elementary school is with us today - Isobel Rose, my very first teacher, my grade one teacher. Both Walter Gage and Isobel Rose believed in the possibilities of education – that giving their students the best education possible could allow them to change the world. They were right.

In my family, nobody had ever been to university. My parents weren’t able to finish high school because of the Great Depression. There was no financial safety net. In fact, when I was six years old my father, our breadwinner, got polio and lived the rest of his life in a wheelchair. Yet my parents always had faith in education. They believed that getting the best possible education would provide the best chance to make the world a better place.They were right.

I’ve been lucky, of course - lucky to have had found many good chances to improve the lives of others. I now have over 220 patents and patent applications for various inventions in medical technology. Some of those 220 patents and inventions turned out to be very successful, successful financially and successful in more important ways.

You heard about one example, surgical tourniquets. I first learned about tourniquets from one patient, 33 years ago. She was injured unnecessarily during surgery. When I investigated her injury, I realized that I had a chance to use my education to help others.

Starting with that one patient injury, many tourniquet innovations have resulted. And over 72 million surgeries have been performed using those innovations. More than 72 million times so far, patients have benefitted by having safer surgery and surgery of better quality. And each day, that total increases by more than 17,000 new patients.

Perhaps you are one, or know someone. For example, has anyone in your family had an arthritic knee replaced? Do you know a baby born with a club foot, or a child who needed orthopaedic surgery? Have you had an arthroscopy or a sports injury, or trauma to an arm or leg? Do you know anyone who has had an amputation, or hand surgery, or foot or ankle surgery? If so, I’m happy to have made a difference in their lives.

I am certain that that each graduate today will come across many opportunities to make the world a better place. It could be a great opportunity or a small one, or a chance to improve just one life. I hope that you will do your best to find those opportunities. And then I hope that you will take a chance, your chance, to make the world a little bit better, in your own unique way, using your talents and your education.

Remember Socrates, who said, “The unexamined life is not worth living”. As I examine my professional life, I’ve come to value the importance of those who believe in us. By recognizing my accomplishments today, you are recognizing their accomplishments too. Those who helped me have also helped more than 72 million others.

In closing, let me leave you with this thought. I hope you’ll discover many opportunities to make the world a little bit better, by combining your own unique talents and dreams with what you’ve learned at university. And if that happens, I hope you will also seek out opportunities to do the same for others. I hope you will try to do for others what your professors, your teachers, your families, and your friends have already done for you.

Thank you.