Renowned researcher makes legacy gift
Chapter 1 Getting his start
Dr. John McNeill wants to pay it forward. He is building on his long relationship with Heart & Stroke by naming the organization as a beneficiary of his registered savings plan. This legacy gift will support young researchers who are in the same position as he was 50 years ago.
It was 1971 when John accepted a position as associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the University of British Columbia. The decision surprised his wife, Sharon.
“My wife didn’t think I would ever take a job in Canada because the salaries were lower, amongst other reasons,” he says. John was then on the faculty at Michigan State University, although he is a Canadian who grew up in Alberta and Manitoba.
Driving from Michigan to Vancouver, he recalls, “we started off with two cars and didn’t even get out of the state when one broke down. Only one car made it. Luckily, we survived all of that.”
Once John and his family arrived in Canada, he started applying for research grants. “I was a relatively young guy, who didn’t have much of a reputation.” But to his surprise, he received his first grant from Heart & Stroke. “The fact that I got a grant the first time I applied for it and was invited to be on the local committee was an honour and left an impression on me.”
Dr. McNeill’s research focused on the connection between drugs and heart diseases.
Dr. McNeill enjoyed a long research career at the University of British Columbia.
Chapter 2 Making his mark
His family soon became involved with Heart & Stroke as volunteers. Sharon McNeill canvassed while their two daughters participated in Jump Rope for Heart and various fundraisers. John became a spokesperson, eventually joining the Heart & Stroke board of directors for BC & Yukon, while continuing his research.
“It started out as a simple, ‘You help me out, and I’ll help you out,’ relationship with Heart & Stroke. But then I really enjoyed doing it,” John recalls. “It was so rewarding, and people were so appreciative of this work.”
In the lab, John’s research focused on how drugs affect the heart, especially for people with diabetes, as well as the connection between cardiovascular drugs and low blood pressure. “We discovered many things. People are still using the ideas that we had and are continuing to work on this.”
As John built a reputation as one of Canada’s foremost pharmaceutical researchers, supported by more Heart & Stroke grants over the years, he was also developing the talents of many young scientists. “It was so rewarding to train people and to see them now, all around the world, continuing their work. Most of them still keep in touch with me.”
One of those young researchers was Dr. Tony Hebden, who joined John’s lab as a post-doctoral fellow in the 1980s.
John’s mentorship helped him grow as a scientist and produce impactful research, says Tony, now retired from a career as a pharmaceutical executive in the U.S. “I was able to watch the research findings from visionary scientists like John McNeill being used to develop drugs in the ongoing battle to improve the quality of life.”
Tony admits he channelled John when giving advice to his team. “I occasionally smiled to myself as I realized that I was simply repeating what a very wise man had said to me 30 years earlier.”
Chapter 3 Planning his legacy
The decision to make a legacy gift to Heart & Stroke was an easy one for John, who was inducted as a Member of the Order of Canada in 2020. “It appeared to me that this is a good thing to do — and that this will, hopefully, get something started that other people could carry on.”
John’s legacy gift will ensure that his passion for research and education lives on, by supporting awards for early-career investigators. These will attract top talent, protecting their research time to explore new ways to prevent and reduce the effects of cardiovascular disease.
“Heart disease and stroke is a major cause of misfortune and death,” John says. “Medicine needs to be improved and we need the very best people to research, treat and diagnose it.”
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