Bliss likes Harper’s small town

Michael Bliss in his study
Michael Bliss in his study

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and historian Michael Bliss have something in common.

Harper told the Leaside 100 Gala earlier this year that he tells everyone he was raised in Leaside, a small town in Toronto.

Bliss, one of Canada’s best-known and most prolific historians, has spent his whole married life in Leaside, which he says, “I see … as a small town in the middle of a great city where we have the best of both worlds.”

For Bliss and his wife Liz life here now amounts to 50 years.
It started in Thorncliffe Park (which was part of the Town of Leaside at the time), then on Macnaughton Rd., and, since June 1973, on Bessborough Dr. in North Leaside.

“We’ve been very happy in Leaside,” Bliss says.

The couple’s three children, a son and two daughters, all attended Leaside schools and played minor sports. All three children are now married with children of their own. Two are lawyers in Vancouver, the third a school teacher in Toronto.

Michael Bliss grew up in Kingsville and says he always loved books, “especially the big heavy ones,” and knew even as a boy that he wanted to write them himself one day. But he studied both science and philosophy at the U of T, taught school for two years at Lawrence Park Collegiate – and got married – before committing to a career in history.

The late 1960s was a time of rapid expansion on Canadian campuses and he was hired by the University of Toronto’s history department even before finishing his doctorate.

While Bliss liked teaching, it was the book projects he’s enjoyed most.

“Both working in the archives and writing in my study are a kind of time-travel, a constant dialogue with the sources,” he says. “A long day’s work writing history can be very satisfying.”

He’s written about Canada’s business and political history, and was best-known to many Canadians for his frequent appearances on television and in newspapers as a political commentator, especially during the constitutional debates of the 1980s and ’90s.

But it is to medical history that he has devoted most of his time and energy. And his most enduring book has been The Discovery of Insulin, which tells the fascinating story of Banting and Best (and Collip and MacLeod), their teamwork and rivalry leading to the discovery in Toronto in 1922 that offered diabetics a chance to live a relatively normal life.

The book is still in print after more than 30 years and has been translated into six languages. Bliss is still asked to give talks on the subject – he gave one in Port Hope and another in Washington D.C. in the past few months, and will give another one in Edinburgh this fall.

Biographies of two medical pioneers, Canadian Sir William Osler, “the father of modern medicine,” and Harvey Cushing, the founder of modern neurosurgery, published in 1999 and 2005 respectively, were well-received and unlikely to be superseded. And they certainly classify as the big, heavy books he dreamed of writing.

Bliss likens a book project to running a marathon, something he did just once though for years he was a regular runner on the streets of Leaside and in Toronto’s ravine parks before his knees gave out.

“When you finish one [race or book], you’ve got to pick the next one and start telling people about it; I like the purposefulness of having a project.”

But he says he was exhausted after completing Cushing and won’t tackle another big book.

He still keeps busy. He worked until recently with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute promoting intelligent debate on historical and contemporary issues. He serves on the board of trustees of the Museum of Civilization in Ottawa which is in the midst of a transformation into the Museum of Canadian History with galleries scheduled to open in time for Canada’s 150th birthday in 2017.

“For the first time Canada is going to have a national museum of its history and for an historian this is really exciting.”

He also published his memoirs in 2011, Writing History: A Professor’s Life, an engaging and enjoyable read. He will give a talk about it at Leaside library Nov. 19.

And he was involved in the recent attempts to save the back campus at U of T from being converted to Astroturf to host women’s field hockey at the Pan-Am Games. Despite city council approval earlier this summer, Bliss says the battle isn’t over: “We’ve lost for now – it’s a shameful thing for the university to do – but we’ll not rest until we have real grass back on our campus!”

“I’ve been blessed with a long life, good health and a lot of energy,” says Bliss, “and I hope to be around for a while yet. I plan to write a new preface for a centennial edition of The Discovery of Insulin [in 2022].”