Monday, January 07, 2008

Serendipity: amazing linkage of the month

I realize that we are only seven days into the month of January, but I think it unlikely that the connection made last Friday (on only the fourth day of the month) will be topped by anything more serendipitous in the next 24 days.

On Friday, I received an email from Alan Davidson, M.D., F.R.C.P.(C), all out of the blue. Dr. Davidson, a Canadian psychiatrist and chronicler of the medico-legal history of the death penalty in Canada, had run across my earlier post about University of Oregon Medical School graduate Camilla May Anderson. He wrote me: "Sara, Your Camilla Anderson gave testimony that led to the end of hanging in Canada."

She was, in a way, "my Camilla" on Friday. She had been much on my mind, as I had been working on a short list of Oregon women physicians to forward for possible nomination as "Local Legends," in association with the upcoming National Library of Medicine traveling exhibit Changing the Face of Medicine: Celebrating America's Women Physicians (opening June 2008 at the Multnomah County Library Central Branch). The formal nomination process requires congressional support, and I had been eager to present as much information about the candidates as possible in (very) short biographies that will be vetted by a handful of campus groups. In Dr. Davidson, I was presented with a great source of additional information about Camilla, just at the time I needed it.

Through a series of short emails, I have already learned that Camilla provided key testimony in the Canadian trial of accused murderer Rene Vaillancourt, who was sentenced to death by hanging in October of 1973. Davidson had originally recruited the American psychiatrist Paul Wender to testify on Vaillancourt's behalf, but when Wender backed out, Davdison turned to Camilla, whom he subsequently described as "lesser known, but brilliantly and passionately qualified."

In 1967, the Canadian government had placed a moratorium on the use of the death penalty, except in cases of the murders of policemen and prison guards. The law was set to expire at the end of 1977, and the case of Rene Vaillancourt was on the minds of cabinet ministers, as well as members of Parliament. Acting Prime Minister Mitchell Sharp was quoted as saying: "On questions like this, it is the cabinet, and not any single minister, who makes the decision. I know I speak for all my colleagues when I say that when the Vaillancourt case does come before the cabinet, it will be discussed on its merits, and I am sure every member of the cabinet will take his responsibility." In Davidson's opinion, Camilla's testimony about the psychiatric competency of the defendant was a key component in the decision to finally abolish the death penalty (except in certain cases) in 1976. As he wrote to me in an email, "I doubt that Camilla ever knew what she did!"

Davidson has himself contributed to the historical record of psychiatry in Canada in the 20th century, through the donation of his papers to Library and Archives Canada (see the list of Recent Private Sector Acquisitions here). He is also contributing records relating to the legal case of Regina v. Vaillancourt, which will complement materials already in LAC.

If you'd like to share your thoughts about women physicians who have inspired you, you can contribute comments on the exhibit web site guestbook. Every hero her champion!

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