A Historian Who Looked Forward
Dr. William C. Gibson, one of the Library’s strongest and mostenduring supporters, passed away last year at the age of 95. His UBC legacy endures in the generations of medical students he taught, inthe vast body of his scholarly work, in his books of wry wisdom, andmost visibly in Woodward Library, one of his proudest achievements.
Born in Ottawa in 1913, Gibson grew up in Victoria. He completed a bachelor’s degree in 1933 as part of UBC’s first graduating class in commerce, then pursued medical studies at McGill and a Ph.D. at Oxford. Gibson’s distinguished career at UBC spanned 30 years, including successive posts as Researcher and Clinical Associate Professor, Director of the Kinsmen Laboratory for Neurological Research, and Professor and Head of the History of Medicine and Science Department.
At a memorial service in Vancouver, Gibson’s son-in-law described him as “a historian who looked forward,” says Gibson’s daughter Kate. “That’s exactly who he was.”
Passions and projects
Legendary stories abound about Gibson’s love of medical history books and his ability to convince wealthy friends to fund worthy projects. These two passions united when in 1960, he and several colleagues brought P.A. “Puggy” Woodward, scion of the department store family, to a dim and musty hole in the core of the Central Library. All they had to do was show him the sorry conditions in which a small treasure trove of rare and early medical texts were being stored.
Woodward emerged from the basement ready to bankroll the construction of a medical library. Gibson was instrumental in bringing rare treasures to campus that would be showcased in the building, including Laurentius Valla’s Elegant Latin Language, printed in 1476, and a rare first edition of William Harvey’s revolutionary 1628 work on blood circulation, De Motu Cordis.
“If there was something he thought was a good project, he would raise heaven and earth to get it done,” remarked Anna Leith, an Emerita UBC Librarian who became Head of Woodward Library in 1967.
“So we modestly designed a building to last 200 years, in which any wall, counter or catalogue could be moved within 20 minutes,” Gibson wrote in a 1982 speech to the National Library of Medicine. “I don’t want to build a book cemetery,” he quoted Woodward as saying.
“I want milestones of science – the first time any new discovery was published. I want the students to see these, and appreciate that UBC has them!”
Gibson’s contact with the neurology greats of the 19th and 20th centuries made him want to share those experiences with students and faculty at UBC, said Dr. Patrick L. McGeer, a student of Gibson’s in the 1950s, and now an Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry.
“He recognized the aura that went with greatness. He brought it here physically – the evidence of it – it’s all those rare books in the Woodward Memorial Room. That’s his attempt to expose UBC and the Medical School to some aspect of greatness.”
- This article originally appeared in the Friends Summer 2010 newsletter. To read the entire issue, click here.