June 14, 2021

Med school marks four decades since Mamoru Watanabe named dean

Former dean highly regarded for expanding UCalgary’s medical research and pioneering rural telemedicine
Mamoru ‘Mo’ Watanabe
Mamoru ‘Mo’ Watanabe

Forty years after he first served as the dean of the Calgary’s medical school, the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) is reflecting on the contributions of Dr. Mamoru ‘Mo’ Watanabe, MD, and his remarkable journey.

Watanabe was nine years old in 1942 when he and many other Japanese Canadian students living on the West Coast were removed from public school and sent to internment camps in response to the bombing of Pearl Harbor the year before.

He and his sisters grew up in internment camps in interior British Columbia, eventually getting an education in part through informal educators in local church and community groups, before eventually returning to the public system.

His family moved to Montreal when he was a teen, where he attended public high school and made his way to McGill University to become a medical doctor in 1957. 

Watanabe went on to become a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Canada in internal medicine and earned his PhD six years later. He was eventually recruited to the University of Calgary to be a professor and the head of internal medicine in 1974.

There were many people who cautioned me about the limited opportunities available for visible minorities in specialty medicine and in academic medicine. Fortunately, there were others — role models and mentors — who inspired and motivated me. I don’t think there is any question it made me strive to be a better doctor. It was something that stayed with me.

He rose through the faculty quickly, becoming the acting dean from 1981 to 1982 and serving as dean for two terms, from July 1982 until June 1992. Watanabe was the third dean in the faculty’s history and is believed to be the first Japanese Canadian dean of a Canadian medical school. He is admired for his work to expand the medical school’s research role and pioneering use of telemedicine in rural Alberta.

“Post-secondary education is certainly very different with respect to equity and diversity and has made many strides in the years since I became dean in 1981,” he says.

“When I first moved to Edmonton and later to Calgary, it was possible for someone like me from a minority group to participate in leadership positions if they wished. I thank the supportive medical leadership in both centres for this and, hopefully, it is just as possible today,” Watanabe says. “My advice to today’s youth would be to focus on their education, commit to a pursuit of excellence and self-awareness, to follow their own interests and passion and to have the courage to overcome and reject unfair restrictions and limitations some may wish to impose.”

He has been a professor emeritus since 1997, and following his retirement has served on many provincial, federal and international boards and committees, task forces, and advisory boards for Alberta Health, Health Canada, Industry Canada as well as other healthcare and telehealth organizations.

Watanabe was named an officer of the Order of Canada in 2001 and was a recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012.

Information for this story was gathered from Creating the Future of Health: The History of the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary, 1967-2012. Anyone interested in other stories like this one is encouraged to find the book at the UCalgary Medical Bookstore, UCalgary Press or online through Chapters Indigo Canada.