Michael Bliss

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John William Michael Bliss, OC FRSC (born January 18, 1941) is a Canadian historian and award-winning author. Though his early works focused on business and political history, he has written several important medical biographies, including of Sir William Osler. Bliss is also a frequent commentator on political events and issues. He is a member of the Order of Canada.

Early life[edit]

Bliss was born in Leamington, Ontario. His father was a physician who encouraged him to enter the medical field. In an autobiographical essay, Bliss explained that his aspirations were shattered when watching his father suture a drunk's face.:[1]

[T]here was a Sunday afternoon when Dad’s and my Scrabble game was interrupted by the appearance at the office door of a policeman with a drunk in tow, the drunk having been in a fight and suffering a badly slashed face. Dad had to sew him up, suturing both inside and outside the cheek, and invited me to watch what would be a demonstration of his surgical skill [...] with blood and alcohol fumes everywhere, reflecting on my own complete disinterest in and lack of manual skills, I decided that this was not what I wanted to do in life. And that was the end of my ambition to be a doctor.

Academic pursuits[edit]

Bliss entered the University of Toronto in 1958, and received his BA, MA, and Ph.D. degrees there. He was appointed to the faculty in 1968 and by the time of his retirement in 2006 had attained the elite rank of University Professor.

His doctoral dissertation, which was supervised by Ramsay Cook, was a social history of Canadian business, an analysis of the "thoughts and dreams" of businessmen in Canada during the National Policy years. It was published under the title A Living Profit. In 1978 he published a major biography of Sir Joseph Flavelle, "A Canadian Millionaire", and in 1987 the first history of business in Canada, "Northern Enterprise."

In 1982 he began a mid-career transition to medical history with his book "The Discovery of Insulin". He has published biographies of two Canadians, the discoverer of insulin Sir Frederick Banting and the famous physician Sir William Osler. In 2005 he published a biography of the American neurosurgeon Harvey Cushing, himself also a biographer of Osler.

Like J.L. Granatstein, his criticism of excessively specialized social history has made him a controversial figure in Canadian historiography.

Bliss has been a frequent commentator on Canadian politics for newspapers, magazines, and television, and has lectured widely in North America and Europe.

In a 2005 profile for the National Post, former student John Turley-Ewart writes: "In the 1990s, when I worked as his teaching assistant, it was not unusual to see 300 people from all walks of life – full-time students, business people, civil servants, journalists – packed into his evening lectures."[2] He was nominated by Turley-Ewart as Canada's "leading public intellectual", part of a series that ran in National Post.

Awards and distinctions[edit]

In 1998, he was made a Member of the Order of Canada and was promoted to Officer in 2013.[3] His books have won various prizes, including the Welch Medal of the American Association for the History of Medicine, the Tyrrell Medal of the Royal Society of Canada, three Jason Hannah Medals of the Royal Society of Canada, the Garneau, Macdonald, and Ferguson prizes of the Canadian Historical Association, and the National Business Book Award. His book on Osler was shorted for the Governor General's Award. He is an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada and holds honorary degrees from McMaster University, McGill, the University of British Columbia, and the University of Toronto. In 2008 his students published a festschrift, "Essays in Honour of Michael Bliss: Figuring the Social". In 2016 he became the first historian inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame.

Political commentary[edit]

Bliss frequently comments on current events, contributing essays to various magazine and newspapers, including The Globe and Mail. He opposed the Meech Lake Accord and the Charlottetown Accord and the 1999 NATO bombing of Kosovo and continues to advocate the abolition of the Canadian monarchy. He also strongly criticized Stephen Harper's 2006 move to recognize the Québécois as a nation.


  1. ^ Li Haeman, McKeller, editors. "Figuing the Social: Essays in Honour of Michael Bliss." University of Toronto Press. 2008.
  2. ^ Turley-Ewart, John. "Michael Bliss." National Post. 9 November 2005. Available at: http://www.canada.com/national/nationalpost/news/story.html?id=3af4478a-8b77-481f-b437-ee622a4de85d
  3. ^ "Governor General Announces 90 New Appointments to the Order of Canada". December 30, 2013. 
  • Essays in Honour of Michael Bliss: Figuring the Social. Edited by E.A. Heaman, Alison Li, and Shelley McKellar. University of Toronto Press, 2008
  • Camp, Dalton (September 21, 1997). "Conservatives still in denial of their history". Toronto Star. pp. F3. 
  • Turley-Ewart, John (November 9, 2005). "Preaching the gospel of Canadian history". National Post. pp. A22. 
  • Valpy, Michael (March 11, 2006). "Is the national dream over? About to retire, distinguished historian Michael Bliss revealed this week he now feels Canada's traditional sense of itself is in large measure a failure". The Globe and Mail. pp. F7. 
  • Bliss, Michael, Writing History: A Professor's Life (2011, Dundurn) [1]

External links[edit]


  • A Living Profit: studies in the social history of Canadian business 1883-1911 - 1974.
  • Confederation, 1867: The Creation of the Dominion of Canada - 1975
  • A Canadian Millionaire: The Life and Business Times for Sir Joseph Flavelle - 1978
  • The Discovery of Insulin - 1982
  • Frederick Banting: A Biography - 1984
  • Northern Enterprise: Five Centuries of Canadian Business - 1987
  • Plague: A Story of Smallpox in Montreal - 1991 (nominated for Governor General's Award)
  • — (1994). Right Honourable Men: the descent of Canadian politics from Macdonald to Mulroney (1st ed.). Toronto: HarperCollins. ISBN 978-0-00-255071-0. OCLC 30073069. 
  • William Osler: a Life in Medicine - 1999 (nominated for Governor General's Award)
  • Harvey Cushing: a Life in Surgery - 2005
  • The Making of Modern Medicine: Turning Points in the Treatment of Disease - 2010
  • Writing History: A Professor's Life - 2011 (a first-person memoir)