VGH’s “Father of Orthopedics” retires 50 years after revolutionary surgery
On a December day in 1967, Dr. Robert McGraw took his first step towards revolutionizing orthopedic surgery at VGH: he performed the hospital’s first-ever hip replacement operation.
This now-common procedure was, at the time, a revolutionary surgery providing relief from a very painful degenerative disease: osteoarthritis of the hip joint.
“At that time (1967) there were no disease-altering drugs for arthritis and no biological treatments,” he recalls. “There was nothing that could stop the disease, so there were a large number of people—children, middle-aged adults and the elderly—who were crippled with arthritis.”
That was about to change.
Earlier that year, the Canadian Arthritis and Rheumatism Society had selected Dr. McGraw for a one-year travelling fellowship to study developments in arthritis surgery. This was the first time this scholarship had been awarded to a surgeon, instead of a rheumatologist—and that decision would have a lasting impact on the future of orthopedic surgery at VGH.
Learning from the best
Dr. McGraw traveled to the United States, France, Finland, Scotland and England studying with the day’s leaders in orthopedic surgery—including Sir John Charnley, the pioneer of hip replacement surgery, James McKee and Watson Farrar, developers of the McKee-Farrar hip prosthesis—so that he could bring the new procedures back to VGH and help thousands of British Columbians.
50 years of dedicated patient-centred care
Upon his return to Canada, Dr. McGraw immediately set to work applying what he had learned and teaching others so that patients in BC could begin benefitting from the surgery.
That December, he performed the first hip replacement operation at VGH.
In the room was Dr. Frank Patterson, then Head of the Division of Orthopedic Surgery. After observing the procedure, Dr. Patterson also began performing hip replacement surgeries and teaching the technique to others in the division. Soon several surgeons were performing the operation and in the years since, the growth in hip replacement surgeries at VGH has been exponential.
Dr. McGraw—whose CV spans an incredible 31 pages—has made an indelible mark on orthopedic surgery at VGH. Appointed as the University of British Columbia’s first Department Head of Orthopaedic Surgery, he held the post for 11 years. “UBC is the only medical school in Canada with a Department of Orthopaedics; in the other 16 medical schools, it’s a Division of Surgery. This puts VGH on par with academic centres like Harvard, Yale and Stanford,” he remarks, proudly.
A career in numbers
During his distinguished career, Dr. McGraw has:
- performed over 10,000 operations—approximately one-third have been hip replacements;
- authored over 100 academic papers;
- been presented with 22 honours and awards—including the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal;
- written four book chapters; and
- held two patents.
In addition, UBC has started the annual McGraw Lectureship in honour of the esteemed surgeon and teacher. Even in the midst of all of this, he remains humble. “It hasn’t been work,” he says. “It’s been a labour of love.”
Teaching future surgeons
During his tenure as a UBC Faculty of Medicine professor, Dr. McGraw and the Orthopedics team taught over 100 orthopedic surgeons how to perform hip replacement surgeries, including Dr. Bas Masri, VGH Surgeon-in-Chief; Professor and Head of the Department of Orthopaedics at the University of British Columbia, and Head of the Department of Orthopaedics at Vancouver Acute.
“I’m proud to call him my mentor and my friend,” says Dr. Masri. “Dr. McGraw has been responsible so much innovation in this field and
has touched thousands of patient’s lives.”
When reflecting on his career, what stands out for Dr. McGraw is not the accolades or honours—it’s knowing that he has made an impression on the next generation of surgeons. “What I have enjoyed most about my career has been teaching other people,” says Dr. McGraw. “My graduates and students say that I taught by example. I’ve always believed and taught that it is a privilege to be a doctor, and certainly a privilege to be able to perform surgery.”
The next chapter
Dr. McGraw retired from surgery at the age of 65; however he continued to have a full-time, non-operative orthopaedic practice, following his former surgical patients and providing consulting and diagnostic services.
He has now decided to close his consulting practice. “It has been a 50-year practice of orthopaedics,” he comments, “There’s a time to start and a time to finish. What an appropriate time–50 years from the day I opened it”.
Hip Surgery stats:
- In 1967, hip replacement surgeries were only done on senior patients (65+); now these operations are performed on people as young as 15.
- Six per cent of persons 80 and older have undergone hip replacement surgery.
- Approximately 50,000 hip replacement surgeries are performed in Canada each year.
- As of 2017, approximately 120,000 hip replacement operations have been performed in British Columbia.
- Rates of hip replacement surgeries continue to increase year-over-year.
- VGH and UBC Hospital perform over 1,000 hip replacement surgeries each year.