Adolescent Health Profile - Roger Tonkin

“Never Give Up on Them” – A Remembrance of Roger Tonkin’s Legacy in Adolescent Health and Medicine

The late Canadian Roger Tonkin, MD (1936-2015) holds a special place in the echelons of both IAAH and adolescent health and medicine at large. As the longest serving IAAH president (1994 – 2001), his powerful and enduring contributions are noted here with gratitude and pride.

Roger and I worked closely together through the 1990s and beyond. He was a member of IAAH’s initial Executive Council, representing the International Regional Chapter of the (then) Society for Adolescent Medicine (IRC-SAM). He had co-instigated this vibrant global grouping in 1986, together with the late Dr Manny Chigier from Israel (another driving force in getting IAAH underway). Roger strongly felt that SAM needed to take a more worldly view and sought ways to forge meaningful links between the two organisations, including the joint SAM-IAAH Youth Health Congress which he organised in Vancouver in 1995.

To my mind, Roger Tonkin was an intensely interesting individual. In addition to being clear-eyed and straight-talking, his wry humour and warm and thoughtful nature were epitomised by the hospitality he showed me (together with my esteemed colleague and elder statesman, Dr Murray Williams) during a memorable visit to his and his wife Carrol’s home on Gabriola Island, where our deliberations on the health of young people (and the upcoming Congress) were lubricated by the highest quality single malt whiskey.

Dr. Richard MacKenzie & Dr. David Bennett

Another close colleague, Roger’s fellow Canadian and prime architect of SAHM in the US, Richard MacKenzie, MDCM, captures his essence as follows: “Roger’s voice was strong and persistent and was largely responsible for changing the face of, and providing credibility to, the practice of Adolescent Medicine in Canada…He essentially established both the program at BC Children’s Hospital in 1981 and a non-profit and independent support organisation, the McCreary Centre, to carry on his important ongoing study monitoring adolescent health needs…”

MacKenzie continues: “Roger was always able to simply state the needs of young people and advocated strongly for them to have a voice and a presence in matters that involved them. Youth involvement, youth informed, youth centred, and youth empowerment were consistently a part of his leadership vocabulary.”1 With such a close fit in ideology and intent, it is little wonder that so much was achieved during Roger’s many years of devotion to the development and consolidation of IAAH, especially in terms of advancing conversations about the global importance of adolescent health.

For Dr Tonkin the clinician, adolescent eating disorders came to serve as a metaphor for the developmental/bio-behavioural discipline of adolescent medicine. I had the pleasure of sitting in with him during a clinic he was conducting at BC Children’s Hospital. He approached the care of these complex young patients as he approached any challenge to be faced – with dogged perseverance, kindness, and a twinkle in his eye. The girl he was treating on that occasion, as with any other teenager on his watch, simply knew he would ‘never give up on them’.

Roger discussed his career in A Letter to my Younger Colleagues, a series of essays written by selected senior Canadian paediatricians who had been named by a group of prominent younger peers as outstanding mentors. His contribution was entitled, Looking back, looking forward. Candidly admitting that he had originally gone out of his way ‘to avoid working with adolescents’, serendipity led him to ‘became identified with advocacy on behalf of the issues of adolescents’. He asked clinicians ‘to learn to enjoy their adolescent patients and savour their energy and resilience’2.

A brief excerpt from Roger’s eulogy: “In life, Roger was always willing to swim against the current, and until his death he remained authentic to his true nature, with humour and passion. He was an internationally recognised health visionary in standards of practice, curriculum development, and research. Roger received the Order of BC in 1998 and in 2010 the Canadian Paediatric Society honoured him with the Alan Ross Award that recognises lifelong excellence in the fields of paediatric research, education, healthcare, and advocacy.”

Roger Tonkin, the unique and special character that he was, will also be remembered by us, his appreciative colleagues, and friends, for introducing the ‘talking stick’ – a tradition of the native cultures of Canada – into our organisational meetings. We miss him greatly.


1. Teens and Their Doctors by Henry Berman and Hannah Daschefsky, 2016
2. Paediatrics & Child Health, Vol. 15, Issue 7, September 2010 (Pages 406-408).

About the Author

David Bennett, AO, FRACP, FSAHM is a emeritus consultant in adolescent medicine at Sydney Children’s Hospital Network. He is a member of the IAAH Communications Committee.

Richard MacKenzie, MD, is an adolescent medicine attending physician at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.

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