The life of Dr. Max House ended on October 17th, 2013 but his legacy as a technology and medical pioneer, visionary innovator and humanitarian lives on.
Dr. House fully believed that people living in rural and remote communities should have the same access to medical care as those in urban centres. At his passing telemedicine was a normal expected medical diagnostic and consulting environment for people around the world. It was much different when he first envisioned it in 1976.
Destined to become the province’s Lieutenant Governor, Max House was born in the rural community of Glovertown, Newfoundland and Labrador in 1926. He completed his initial studies at Memorial University College and received his medical degree from Dalhousie University in 1952. He immediately signed on as the doctor for the isolated community of Baie Verte in northeast Newfoundland and Labrador accessible, in those days, only by boat. His service there would forever fuel his drive to equalize medical services for people living in rural and remote communities.
Dissatisfied with the medical system’s ability to provide expert service to rural and remote residents he challenged provincial leaders to pursue a bold vision. Using recently launched satellites, one-way television and telephone via satellite, he undertook the first medical diagnostic and consultation activities that would come to be called telemedicine. That was 1976. Now in rural and remote communities around the world people in need benefit from consultation with medical experts via telemedicine. From the first slow scan x-ray diagnostics and satellite telephone EEG diagnostics of the 1970’s to the specialized video imaging of today Dr. House’s vision of an equal opportunity medical world is coming to fruition.
Memorial University’s Erin Keough worked with Dr. House in those early years. “There were so many challenges both technical and human in those early efforts,” she recalls. “Remember, this was an analog world with the new digital technologies simply too flaky for any kind of reliability. Amidst all of the chaos of dropped connections, lost data and solutions needed on the fly, Max would say ‘It is no use goin’ to work if it ain’t fun’”. “We were doing something good for people every day” she recalls. “Max always had a new project to help someone else out. Life was never dull in telemedicine”.
Dr. Chris Loomis, VP of research at Memorial University, was welcomed by Dr. House when he first arrived at the institution. “He went out of his way to make me feel welcome and he was an established academic while I was brand new” remembers Loomis. “He was always trying to improve the situation for those around him. There was this need throughout Newfoundland and Labrador and he shared his expertise around the world based on his work there. He traveled, spoke and advised internationally. He was extremely resourceful in finding solutions to impossible problems.”
But if Dr. House was an innovative visionary he was even more an exemplary human being. Dr. Loomis remembers that “at the end of the day with all of his accomplishments – he was a pioneer, a leader, genuine human being and a delight to be around. I was blessed to have known him and we were always enriched by his company. He was a real mentor in the truest sense.”
That mentorship did not end in the medical field. His work found its way into all areas of distance education and was at the very foundation of Memorial University’s renowned Distance Education Learning Technologies Support centre (DELTS). Dr. House made himself available for many non-medical projects. According to Kevin O’Leary, producer director at DELTS, he did this “to bring provincially significant experiences to the many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians that would never get to participate in them first hand.”
Dr. House was born and raised in rural Newfoundland and Labrador and from that perspective dedicated his life to equalize the opportunities of rural remote people urban folk. He left this world having made a huge impact, one that continues and grows each and every day. Yet like so many who make world changing contributions, in all of the conversations I had researching this article one characteristic came up constantly – humility.
Despite academic success, professional excellence, numerous awards, honourary degrees, even appointment to the office of Lieutenant Governor of his beloved home province, Max was most remembered for his desire to help others. As Kevin O’Leary recounted, “During my 32 years of working in media production at Memorial University I had the great pleasure of working on a number of projects with Dr. House. When you worked with him you always wanted to do the best work you could, not because you feared not doing well but because you knew how sincere he was in completing these projects to better the lives of the people of Newfoundland and Labrador and beyond. Despite all of the demands on his time he always made sure he thanked everyone involved in these projects personally and let them know how much he appreciated their efforts. He was a great man. “
Today we take things like medical informatics and other technology discipline hybrids for granted and just expect that Information Technology will enable all disciplines to move to their next level of impact. In 1976 Dr. House envisioned what could be in a new relationship between technology and knowledge. The rest is and will continue to be history.