It is with deep sorrow that we announce the passing of Dr. Neil Fraser Duncan on December 7, 2021, in his 97th year. He is survived by his children Kim (Val) of Omaha, Nebraska; Kathy of Leduc, Alberta; David (Lisa) of Valleyview, Alberta; and Deborah (Bruce Randall) of Calgary, Alberta; sister Jean Horne; as well as many grandchildren, great grandchildren, nieces and nephews. He was predeceased by his father, Fraser Duncan; mother, Bertha Steeves Duncan Lipsey; brother Darcy Duncan; brother-in-law Denis Horne; daughter Karen Duncan Harries; as well as his wife of 65 years, Eleanor Batcheller Duncan.
Born in Edmonton in 1925, Neil attended schools in Garneau and grew up blocks from the University Hospital. Graduating high school at 16, his first attempt at university helped him decide to return to high school to mature and improve his grades. Fortunately, that was when he met Mother in his second year of Grade 12 at Strathcona High. A favourite story of his was to laugh about how they “tricked” their folks into believing that they were playing tennis long into the dark at the Garneau Tennis courts.
Inspired by his family pediatrician, Dr. Douglas Leitch, Neil decided to pursue an education in medicine. His childhood nickname “Doc” now seemed very apropos.
During his summers between university studies he worked on a private highway along the Slave River as a grader driver. He loved working on the road with the sun and bugs but mostly with the people he met. He became familiar with travel along the way and developed a particular fondness for Fort Fitzgerald and Fort Smith and the North country. There was a particular section along the rapids where he had to help portage goods to a barge for further transport, and he reveled at the memory of once being invited to steer the barge.
After completing his medical degree at the University of Alberta, Dad continued his residency at Toronto’s Sick Kids and Chicago’s Children’s Memorial Hospital before returning to Edmonton to join the Pediatric Department at the Baker Clinic. Although his interest in cardiology had been stimulated while in residency, it was Dr. Robert Fraser (adult cardiologist at the University) who, in 1954, prompted Dad to pursue a path investigating children’s heart disease. And with that, Alberta’s first pediatric cardiologist launched his career.
Dad filled his days seeing patients at each of Edmonton’s many hospitals, the Baker Clinic, and continued to do traditional “house calls”. He later divided his patient time with the responsibilities as Chairman of the Baker Clinic Management, a position he held for 15 years. In 1973 the Department of Cardiology at the University Hospital began expanding and the Division of Pediatric Cardiology was established with Dad as its Director. In the following years, outreach clinics were established in Red Deer and Yellowknife but Dad also saw patients across the North including in Tuktoyaktuk, Inuvik and Cambridge Bay. This is when his love of the North was reignited.
In 1982, with the departure of key pediatricians and surgeons and the fear of the Pediatric Cardiology Department collapsing, Dad decided to move his full practice and almost 5000 charts (and some of his key staﬀ) from the Baker Clinic to the University and rebuilt the Department. In 1990, despite having reached the obligatory age of retirement, he stayed on while the Department continued to grow and he maintained his clinics in Yellowknife and Red Deer. He passed on his Directorship “proud to see the growth of Pediatric Cardiology climb from such humble beginnings to its present astounding position.”
Dad was committed to making life better for sick kids - especially those with heart disease. In April of 1978 the first meeting was held to organize a Children’s Hospital for Edmonton and Northern Alberta and in 1979, the Alberta Government approved the formation of the Northern Alberta Children’s Hospital Society with Dad as its President. At that time, adult practitioners saw children merely as “small adults” and didn’t see the need for a specialized facility - a huge frustration for Dad. In 1986 the Royal Alex received funding for an expansion of their Pediatric Facility and Premier Getty announced his intention to establish a Children’s Hospital in Northern Alberta. But it was a continuous uphill battle of name changes, locations planned and funds to be raised before the Stollery Children’s Hospital was finally opened in 2001 within the walls of the Walter Mackenzie Health Sciences Centre with the University Hospital and Mazankowski Heart Institute.
If you asked about his life, Dad would immediately answer, “I’ve had a good life. I had good parents and a good wife and five successful kids.” He’d hold his hand up and with his thumb and fingers count off, “Kim, Karen, Kathy, David and Debbie. Who in their right mind had five kids?” He would go on to say “I loved going to work. I never met a kid I didn’t like.” He enjoyed talking about his childhood and parents. He loved to tell stories about working up North. “I’m a bit of a braggart” he’d say, but really, he wasn’t. He just liked to tell stories and reminisce.
We were lucky to have “the lake” to grow up with - dragging food, clothes and old X-ray bottles full of what was to be our drinking water, all the way out to Kapasiwin for a 2-month stay each summer. “Your mother wasn’t that type. She didn’t like the lake much. But she could make really good meals on that old wood stove and we’d eat pancakes on the porch.” Of course, Dad was only out there on weekends and one of the two months, as he continued working at the practice, but he also gave Mom great credit for allowing us kids to have many wonderful summers at the lake.
Then there was the pool. “That was a beautiful house.” he’d say. The grandkids were lured back for visits with the expectation of having a swim, then into the hot tub beside the “cold pool” to warm up. The garage, built to house the pool filter, was an excuse to also have a huge workshop for his woodworking - boxes to house his tools, toys for the grandkids, but more importantly, for honing the craft of his bird carving. They started out simple - mallard silhouettes oiled in a dark walnut stain, but eventually becoming more detailed. Perhaps a magpie of iridescent colour perched on a post adorned with a segment of barbed wire; chickadees clinging to the side of a twig or the more detailed feathering of a crested merganser. His last was that of a tern in flight reminding him of the times he and Mom spent in Victoria by the harbour. But his favourites were the heads of a pair of mating mallards cut from a block of wood, leaving the frame around each like they were three dimensional paintings.
Dad often would talk about our trip across Canada, taking five kids and pulling a tent trailer all the way to Rustico Beach on Prince Edward Island. We’d have the station wagon loaded up and the trailer left behind in a campground while we visited Upper Canada Village or Montmorency Falls or whatever attraction he and Mom had planned for the day. And we drove and drove and drove. “Can you imagine - 5 kids in a car for a month. I must have been crazy!”
“And can you imagine driving all you yahoos to Jasper to ski for a day. We’d get up early in the morning and drive up, ski all day then drive back home. And we’d ski ALL day! Bring a lunch, we’d never stay in the lodge for long. I must have been out of my tree!”, he’d exclaim. “But we had a GOOD family. We did everything together. And there wasn’t any complaining. We had fun.”
Although Dad suﬀered from Alzheimer’s in later years and forgot things of yesterday, certain things he never forgot - the high points of his life, the memories that mattered and, most importantly, his family life.
He will be sorely missed by his family and friends, but we feel honoured and blessed to have had him in our lives as long as we did.
In lieu of flowers, please consider making a donation to the Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation. A celebration of life will be held later, in 2022.