Lost heroes and comrades: Reflections of alumnus Pierre Morisset

Faculty of Medicine

By Michelle Read

Writer, Faculty of Medicine

Dr. Pierre Morisset shaking hands with Governor General Ray Hnatyshyn
As Remembrance Day approaches, the former Surgeon General shares stories of lost comrades and of his rise through the medical echelons of the Canadian Armed Forces.

Each year on Remembrance Day, Pierre Morisset and military colleagues, both active and retired, from the Ottawa area and CFB Petawawa gather at the Chelsea Pioneer Cemetery in Quebec to honour one of theirs—a little-known war hero.

Dr. Morisset, who lives in Ottawa, is now out of uniform, but wears his medals out of respect and tradition every Remembrance Day. It is a proud moment for the University of Ottawa Faculty of Medicine alum, whose military career culminated in his appointment as Surgeon General for the Canadian Armed Forces at the rank of Major General.

“The comrade being honoured is a little-known private soldier named Richard Rowland Thompson,” says Dr. Morisset, “who performed heroic actions as a stretcher bearer during the Boer War in South Africa at the end of the 19th century.”

Dr. Pierre Morisset sitting in a chair at home
Dr. Pierre Morisset, sharing stories from his home in Ottawa.

“The comrade being honoured is a little-known private soldier named Richard Rowland Thompson, who performed heroic actions during the Boer War in South Africa at the end of the 19th century.”

Dr. Pierre Morisset, MD 1971

— speaking of a gathering he attends each Remembrance Day at the Chelsea Pioneer Cemetery in Quebec

Dr. Pierre Morisset, sharing stories from his home in Ottawa.

In recognition of heroism

To recognize the valour of Commonwealth soldiers fighting in the Boer war, reigning monarch Queen Victoria decided to knit scarves with her own hands—“to keep them warm,” in her words. She produced eight, one to be awarded to the most distinguished soldier from each Commonwealth country involved in that war.

Private Thompson was the recipient of the singular award for Canada, on account of his heroism and gallant actions in rescuing wounded comrades on the battlefield. He lived in the Ottawa area after the war, died of natural causes, and was quietly buried in the Chelsea Pioneer Cemetery, where he lay in anonymity for many years.

In the 1980s, Mr. Bob Philips, a World War II veteran, president of the Gatineau Valley Historical Society and friend of Dr. Morisset through their common interest in restoring pioneer log homes, led a team of volunteers to restore the neglected cemetery. In so doing, he discovered the background story of Pvt. Thompson. He informed Dr. Morisset, and that was the beginning of the involvement of the Canadian Forces Medical Services (now called the Royal Canadian Medical Services).

“The Remembrance Day ceremony is rather unique in its setting and its program. The cemetery itself is maintained by members of the Medical Branch and the Royal Canadian Regiment (RCR) from Petawawa (the regiment to which Pvt. Thompson was attached) and is situated in a stand of mature pine trees. It is well attended by local residents,” explains Dr. Morisset.

“There is no booming of artillery, nor fly-pasts, simply a laying of wreaths, prayers by chaplains, and poems and songs by local schoolchildren. It is a very touching ceremony.”

There’s usually a chill on Remembrance Day, enough to make attendees uncomfortable, which brings back memories for Dr. Morisset.

“My thoughts go to those poor young men, cold, hungry, stepping over corpses in the muddy trenches while being bombarded…” he says, his voice trailing off.

uOttawa: All in the family

Dr. Morisset grew up in a francophone household in Sudbury, Ontario. He was distracted from his schoolwork in high school by sports.

Without the scholarships to university enjoyed by his brother and sister, he pondered: How can I make things financially easier for my parents? “Ah, the military!” he thought.

At the time, the Canadian military sought engineers—of no interest to Dr. Morisset, who instead aspired to be a pilot. He joined the Regular Officer Training Plan, in which the military would cover a bachelor’s degree in exchange for three years of military service. Instead of engineering, he chose a BA/Pre-med degree, which offered a good balance of science and humanities, at the University of Ottawa.

Dr. Pierre Morisset climbing into an aircraft.
Flying Officer Morisset climbs into his aircraft in 1965 (age 22) in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.

Dr. Morisset references two postsecondary paths out of Sudbury at the time.

“The anglophones went south to Toronto, Kingston or Waterloo,” says Dr. Morisset. “The francophone kids who wanted to maintain their French came to uOttawa. With lots of Sudbury folks here, it felt like more of a community.”

Dr. Morisset’s choice of uOttawa also arose from a familial connection. His father and brother had studied at the university. And, his father’s brother, Father Auguste Morisset, was director of the School of Library Sciences who envisioned a spacious and modern facility for the study of arts and social sciences, realized in 1972 with the Morisset Library—uOttawa’s new central library. Father Roger Guindon, rector of the University from 1965 to 1984, was a first cousin of Dr. Morisset.

Alongside his studies, Dr. Morisset completed his pilot’s training at various bases in Canada and served his three years of obligatory service as a flying instructor in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). The military then offered to fund his subsequent full medical degree with the obligation of 10 years of military service upon completion.

“I always liked the military,” he says. “Rather than go off and become a pilot with a commercial airline, I chose to stay with them and commit to the service.”

The University of Ottawa Faculty of Medicine Class of 1971
The University of Ottawa Faculty of Medicine Class of 1971. Credit: uOttawa Faculty of Medicine

Medical school was stressful at the time, he recalls. Stiff competition for library resources and no computers made self-learning difficult; students mainly learned directly from what teachers taught.

“Some teachers were not helpful, like asking 85 students to jump on one piece of reference material or refusing to flip the lights on as we took notes from slides in a dark, cramped, hot room in the small medical building at 90 Nicholas,” he says.

The uOttawa medical building (now Vanier Hall) on Nicholas Street
The uOttawa medical building (now Vanier Hall) on Nicholas Street as it was in the 1960s. Published with permission of the Aesculapian Society of the University of Ottawa.

But as with education today, some teachers were more engaging than others for Dr. Morisset and his classmates.

“Dr. Joe Auer taught anatomy. He’d enter the room and everyone would stand up,” he says. “No slides for him—he would draw everything on the chalkboard, and it was good; and he would explain it all. It was a complete contrast in teaching methods, and we learned a lot.”

Dr. Joseph Auer giving an anatomy lecture.
Dr. Joseph Auer giving an anatomy lecture in 1948. Credit: uOttawa Faculty of Medicine

Dr. Morisset also recalls the kindness of Dr. Margaret Beznak. She taught the tough subjects of neurobiology and neuro anatomy very precisely, but she was beloved by students.

“She was one of several teachers who would receive us in their homes for Christmas carolling,” he recalls. “We called her Mama Beznak. I ended up living five houses down from her later in life; I hadn’t known this until she passed away, which made me sad.”

Dr. Morisset was the valedictorian for the 1971 graduating class, having been selected by his classmates for his maturity, bilingualism, good comportment, and affiliation to the military.

Getting involved to get things done

Before long after graduation and commencing his 10 years’ service, Dr. Morisset began rising through the ranks of the military’s medical branch into roles of leadership and administration.

He cites childhood encouragement by his parents, as well as his passion for sports, as formative experiences for stepping forward as a leader in military medicine. He emphasizes the importance of getting involved and taking responsibility.

“It’s about not refusing something when the time comes,” says Dr. Morisset. “Doctors criticized administrators when it came to budget and policies, but I’d say ‘Look, get involved!’ So I decided to do it, and do it properly.”

Major General Morisset in his RCAF mess kit
Major General Morisset in his RCAF mess kit in 2011 (approx.).

Dr. Morisset returned to university for a Master’s in Health Administration. After serving for four year as deputy Surgeon General for the Canadian Armed Forces, in 1992 he was appointed Surgeon General, responsible for the comprehensive health of military members and their families in isolated bases in Canada and in Europe, as well as in out-of-country operations like open conflicts (e.g., the Gulf War), peacekeeping, disaster relief and domestic operations.

“As Surgeon General I had to direct all the elements of health care (doctors, nurses, pharmacists, physiotherapists, physicians’ assistants), research and deployment of field hospitals,” he says.

“The challenge was responding in a timely fashion to the various demands while having shortages at all levels of medical manpower,” he continues. “Budget cuts, such as those in the mid 90s, forced us to close all of the military hospitals in Canada as well as a brand-new one in Germany, thus compounding our problems.”

Dr. Morisset set up a field hospital in Goma, Congo, to serve Rwandan refugees escaping the mass genocide. Armed guards surrounded the hospital.

“Despite the atrocities that the children had witnessed and often suffered themselves, they had big smiles, even as they played soccer with a dried human skull,” he recalls.

Outside a field hospital in Goma, Congo, Dr. Pierre Morisset stands with other military members.
Outside a field hospital in Goma, Congo, Dr. Pierre Morisset (right) looks on as Rwandan children play soccer with a dried human skull.

Gone but not forgotten

For years, fun-loving colleague Richard Martin kept the 1971 classmates in touch with gatherings every four to five years after their graduation, at extravagant settings like Mont Tremblant and Montebello.

But four years ago, Dr. Martin developed Huntington’s disease, giving up not only his medical practice, but also his role of keeping the class tight. With no one available to pick up the torch, Dr. Morisset stepped in.

Upon reaching their 50th anniversary, medical classes have made sizeable donations to the University. In 2022 (delayed from 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic), Dr. Morisset mobilized his class’s interest in founding a fund. Now in its early stages, the fund will memorialize their friend Richard as it promotes research into Huntington’s disease.

Dr. Morisset enjoys staying connected with the Faculty of Medicine and its leadership, attending Homecoming every five years. He has met current dean Bernard Jasmin and other leaders, including Senior Vice-Dean of Medical Education Melissa Forgie, whose father he knew as a military ophthalmologist.

Dr. Morisset shaking the hand of Dr. Bernard Jasmin, dean of the Faculty of Medicine
Dr. Morisset shakes the hand of Dr. Bernard Jasmin, dean of the Faculty of Medicine, at the Dean’s Welcome Reception at TwentyTwo, Westin in Ottawa on September 30, 2022 as part of the weekend’s Homecoming activities.

Dr. Morisset’s responsibilities with the military have ended, and while he can no longer wear the uniform, he recalls when members of senior military staff, such as the chief of defense staff, were junior officers. Remembering him well, they call him "Sir,” as important a mark of respect as a salute.

“When in uniform, when you pass a cenotaph, whether it’s November 11 or any day,” says Dr. Morisset, “you salute out of respect.”

Lest we forget.

Main photo: Dr. Morisset shakes hands with Governor General Ray Hnatyshyn as he receives the Military Merit Medal in 1993 in recognition of outstanding meritorious service and demonstrated leadership in duties of great responsibility.

All photos courtesy of Dr. Pierre Morisset unless otherwise indicated.

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