He’s too rich to be cautious, too popular to be fired

ALAN EDMONDS June 19 1965

He’s too rich to be cautious, too popular to be fired

ALAN EDMONDS June 19 1965

He’s too rich to be cautious, too popular to be fired


Dr. Morton Shulman is more than chief coroner of Metropolitan Toronto; he's a political and professional hot potato. Independently wealthy, he’s uncompromisingly tough, a troublesome nonconformist with not a friend in sight-except the public

DR. MORTON PHILIP SHULMAN, a forty-year-old general practitioner with the intense good looks of an emaciated Ben Casey and the mind of a Wall Street whiz kid, is so rich he doesn't need the $173 a week he gets as chief coroner of Metropolitan Toronto. But he does ardently want the job. And it may be, indirectly but quite recognizably, precisely because he has a bank balance of "something under” (but probably not much under) one million dollars that nobody has been able to get him fired to date. In the most recent incident. Ontario was treated to the curious sight of Premier John Robarts inviting Shulman. a relatively minor civil servant, to his sanctum, then emerging forty-five minutes later to reassure the world that the coroner (once more) was not about to be fired.

It is. of course. Shulman's financial independence that gives muscles to his natural inclination to speak out on things he considers wrong with the official approach to the coroner’s function — which happens to concern the sudden death of citiz.ens from causes that do not appear to be natural.

Since his appointment in March 1963 his running feuds with his bosses, a number of sensational inquests he has ordered, and an unwillingness to regard all fellow doctors as ipso facto infallible, have made Shulman a political and professional hot potato — too conspicuously a spokesman for the public to be quietly fired; too much a renegade for the government and the medical profession to tolerate willingly.

Shulman says he has done nothing but “my job, properly, the way it hasn't been done in ages.” He has, among other things, been responsible for having one doctor struck off the rolls and a second disciplined; ordered an inquest that led to operating-theatre procedures being changed across Canada; been publicly rebuked by an Ontario supreme court judge for holding unnecessary inquests; accused the Ontario attorneygeneral's department of interference with his conduct of his job; probably been responsible for having the method of disciplining Ontario doctors streamlined; provided, in the face of official disapproval, facilities for medical research on the suddenly dead which one scientist describes as “invaluable.” Shulman has thrown his weight behind three national legalreform movements and so increased their chances of success. He is campaigning for compulsory breathalyzer tests for suspected impaired drivers, now legal only in Saskatchewan; for laws to force auto makers to build safety into all their products; for easier legal abortions in cases where a woman's mental or physical health might suffer, in instances of rape and incest, and where the child is likely to be deformed. Abortions are now legal only if the woman's life is in danger. Shulman would

make them legal if two doctors agreed that one of the stipulated conditions existed.

He promoted these causes in his 1 964 annual report, which was also a summary of his feuds with authority. When published in March at his own expense (Metropolitan Toronto's council declined to vote the five-hundred-dollar cost) it caused such a furor in Ontario that it seemed Shulman was (once more ) about to be fired — until Premier Robarts took the unusual step of announcing that Shulman's job was safe.

Depending on where you sit, Shulman, a slight, lithe man who looks ten years younger than his age, is either a knighterrant tilting at an inefficient legal and medical Establishment, or an irresponsible medical maverick given to distorting the truth and poking his nose where it doesn't belong. But he'd be neither if it weren't for that bank balance. As he says, “If I had to live on that $9,000-a-year salary I'd have to think a lot longer before I upset anyone's applecart. But 1 don’t, so 1 can afford to be independent.”

He made the money playing the stock market with techniques that awed even seasoned Wall Street traders. Along with independence, the profits have given him a seventy-two-thousand-doilar house which is more baronial mansion than family home, an assorted collection of paintings and antiques possibly unique in Canada, and the kind of annual holidays that leave him with one remaining travel ambition: to visit Ulan Bator, capital of Outer Mongolia.

Shulman says that “doing his job properly” has meant ordering penetrating inquiries into deaths that his predecessors might have ignored, or at least not examined so closely. His tactics have earned the disapproval (to say the least) of two successive assistant attorneys general (under whose department the coroner system comes) and of Dr. H. Beatty Cotnam, supervisory coroner of the province, Shulman's immediate boss, an able administrator and powerful personality more inclined to go through channels than Shulman. In exasperation Cotnam once said, “In any society there must be a chain of authority. Shulman refuses to recognize that. It's not that I want his job. It's just more work for me and puts me under the gun.”

He added, “This fellow has a remarkable ability to distort the truth. He has constantly refused to accept advice or instruction. He has been smearing the reputation of the sixtyfive hundred doctors in Ontario. He pictures himself as Sir Galahad on a white charger, trying to clean up all corruption at once — and I just can’t accept that.”

But the public seems able to “accept that” — and applaud it — to a considerable extent. And. of course, Shulman is manna to the newspapers. Toronto's three dailies usually support him editorially, and Dr. Cotnam has, perhaps understandably, grown reluctant to reply when he or his department is under fire. “Whatever the truth, you read the newspapers and we come out looking bad while Shulman ends up smelling of roses,” he says bitterly.

Shulman argues, "As coroner charged with the task of investigating and preventing deaths, I believe my lirst responsi-

bility is to the people, and in many circumstances the press is the people. Until I became chief coroner, newspapers paid little attention to inquests. Now they attend them all and the recommendations made by juries and coroners are receiving wide — and valuable — publicity.”

Shulman’s bible is Coroner's Practice, a textbook by Gavin Thurston, chief coroner of London, England, a doctor who is also a lawyer and the prime authority on the coroner system under British-style law. To support his use of the press. Shulman quotes Thurston: "Publicity given to inquest proceedings gradually informs the public of dangers in everyday life and may be regarded as a form of general education.”

A marked reduction in accidents on Toronto construction jobs in the past two years is, says Shulman, largely due to publicity given inquest juries' condemnation of contractors and government agencies for not observing or enforcing safety laws. And Dr. George Wodehouse, head of University of Toronto campus medical services, says publicity given to an inquest on a student who died after taking an overdose of pep pills at exam time “was of inestimable value as an awful warning to other students.”

But the recommendations of coroners and inquest juries, however significant, would be largely valueless unless they were followed up by provincial officials. And this is one of the jobs of Dr. Cotnam's department — a job which Shulman says “Cotnam is doing wonderfully well. He is a very able man. It’s just unfortunate we don’t get along because if we did we could get a great deal done.”

In his turn. Cotnam does not belittle Shulman's many positive achievements, and few people, doctors included, quarrel with Shulman’s campaigns to purge the medical profession of negligence and incompetence. But / continued on page 30

Should a coroner prod the doctors?


continued front pape 19

many believe this can best be done by the profession itself, and A. K. Gillies, executive secretary of the Ontario Medical Association, suggests that decisions to discipline doctors should never be publicized. Shulman claims that without prodding the profession would do little to tidy its own house, and he maintains that within living memory no doctor had been disciplined for incompetence “though common sense tells you there must have been incompetents in that time.” When Shulman made this a public issue, the Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons pointed out that doctors are traditionally disciplined under the catchall charge of “professional misconduct,” which presumably includes incompetence. But this year the college itself proposed, and got, law changes to enable it to speed up the handling of incompetence charges.

There is some justice in Cotnam’s claim that Shulman scorns the Establishment. Shulman sums up his philosophy thus: “The coroner’s main function is to bring in recommendations that will prevent similar deaths in future. But the attorney-general's department and Dr. Cotnam seem to believe the coroner should be limited to simply determining the official cause of death, and that's a rubberstamp job. For too many years the attorney-general’s department has been using the coroner system as a convenient rug under which they could

sweep embarrassing affairs. When l pulled the rug away, they got most upset.”

It is. however, now too late for the Ontario government to dispose of the Shulman problem by firing him. (Actually. the preferred technique would be to abolish the post of chief coroner.) As Ontario’s NDP leader Donnald C. MacDonald says, “If Shulman were fired there would be a public outcry. The predominant consideration is the public interest, and on balance so far there is no doubt Dr. Shulman has served it.” In 1964, when one of Shulman’s battles appeared about to get him fired, eighty influential Torontonians agreed with this estimate to the extent of signing a petition supporting him and presenting it to the provincial government.

Which was hardly what was expected or intended when, in 1952, the ruling Ontario Conservative Party was pleased to appoint young Dr. Shulman. a party worker, who was having a tough time establishing a medical practice, to the post of deputy coroner. Shulman had qualified as a doctor in 1948. spent a year studying surgery, but found "I didn't have the manual dexterity to be a good surgeon." He filled in for other doctors for a few months, and enjoyed it. But when he set up his own practice he found there were too many young doctors and too few hospital staff appointments to accommodate them all. Since general practice is well nigh impossible without access to a hospital, Shulman found himself taking

the late-night calls more established doctors refused.

He also acquired a patient many other doctors might have refused — one Jack Burnett, an alcoholic, barbiturate-addicted bawdyLouse operator who claimed to have political connections and promised to have Shulman made a coroner. Burnett died before he could do so and Shulman says now' he would have rejected that offer anyway — but admits it did make him realize that as a coroner he would have less difficulty' getting patients into hospital. So he joined the Conservative Party, campaigned for one of its provincial candidates and even became a Conservative Association branch chairman. For his pains he became one of nineteen deputy coroners on the staff of Dr. Smirle Lawson. then Toronto's chief coroner.

Lawson, says Shulman. gave him these instructions: “First, don’t look under the bed for a gun when you find an eighty-seven-year-old man lying dead of old age: protect the poor old widows — the rich can look after themselves; and don’t ever embarrass the medical profession in public." Lawson retired in 1962 and Shulman. still a party member, was appointed his successor.

He called together the eighteen deputy coroners, men who combine general practice with official duties, and told them. "From now on no one is to be protected by this department."

“I will not be pressured”

At first his revolution was confined to reorganizing and modernizing the department, but in a few months he began to rock the boat of established practice.

A seventy-one-year-old man died at Toronto’s Shouldice Clinic, world famous for hernia operations, and Shulman ordered an inquest. The jury recommended a major overhaul of operating practice at the hospital. Dr. Earle Shouldice, a man of substance (and an individualist) in the medical world, appealed the findings to the Ontario Supreme Court, where Mr. Justice Richardson quashed the inquest, and said, "It should never have been brought before a lay jury. 1 don’t agree any mistake was made, but if one w'as it should have been taken up by the College of Physicians and Surgeons.” Shulman, he said, should stop calling unnecessary inquests and bone up on the Coroner's Act.

Shulman’s reaction made the front pages of Toronto’s newspapers: “I

will not be pressured into treating the medical profession like a sacred cow. The Ontario Medical Association doesn’t want doctors investigated by anyone. But I believe medical mistakes should he investigated just as are mistakes in any other profession."

Emboldened by Shulman’s attitude, some Toronto coroners and inquest juries began demanding changes in some laws, stricter enforcement of others. They rapped doctors and hospitals whenever they felt it necessary. The never very cordial relationship between Shulman and Dr. Cotnam. a former general practitioner from Pembroke, Ont., and William Common, the deputy attorney general in imme-

“There’s no place for Dr. Shulman...”

díate charge of the coroner system, became strained. Open hostilities erupted in the summer of 1963, when Shulman ordered an inquest into the drowning death of a teenager wearing a life jacket of a design approved by the federal department of transport.

When locally based department of transport officials refused to testify about lifesaving regulations, Shulman subpoenaed their superiors from Ottawa. The attorney-general’s department told him to cancel the subpoenas. He refused. Eventually the Ottawa experts turned up, refused in evidence to pass judgment on lifesaving regulations for which they were at least partly responsible, and Shulman promptly declared the department of transport was more interested in saving face than lives.

At this point. Common was moved to comment that Shulman’s job was “probably superfluous.” He said he would propose that the chief coronership of Toronto be abolished. Dr. Cotnam himself said simply, “There is no place for Dr. Shulman in the long-range plans of my department.”

Shulman countered by charging that Common and Cotnam were interfering with his conduct of his job as coroner.

“The man’s a liar,” replied Cotnam.

The then - attorney general, Fred Cass, called a private meeting to hear Shulman’s complaints. Shulman attended with his secretary and now says Cass asked if he and the girl minded being searched. When the secretary flamed with embarrassment, Cass hastily said he’d accept her assurance there was no tape recorder in her purse. Cass refused Shulman’s demand for an inquiry into the Ontario coroner system, and Toronto newspapers started speculating not so much whether, but when, Shulman would be fired.

Then, within a month of each other, the deaths of two women from cancer came under Shulman's investigation. He denounced their doctors as quacks. One had been treated with serum made from horses’ blood; the other with herbal medicines and what Shulman describes as “an electrical contraption.” In both cases the cancers would, he said, have been operable w'hen the women first sought treatment. Shulman called an inquest into one case, during which he and Cotnam engaged in a loud verbal exchange across the heads of jurors. This inquest w'as quashed by the supreme court on the grounds that another coroner had already signed a death certificate without an inquest. Shulman’s request that the attorney general order an inquest into the death of the second woman was rejected, but he turned his dossier over to the College of Physicians and Surgeons. The herbal-medicine doctor was struck off the medical rolls. The other w'as permitted to continue practise provided he doesn’t use his horse serum on cancer patients.

Then came the “clamp case.” In November 1963, after an operation for stomach cancer, thirty-two-year-old

Patricia Morgan died in Toronto East General Hospital. A hospital autopsy showed she died because a surgical clamp had been left in her abdomen, but no one told the coroner as the law of Ontario and the rest of Canada requires in such circumstances.

Weeks later Patricia Morgan’s sister wrote to Shulman. The inquest he ordered, but did not conduct, revealed that the doctor who performed the operation had been suspected of incompetence by hospital authorities. They had given him an assistant to act as a watchdog, and midway through the operation the two men openly disagreed about procedure. Later, several doctors were charged, and one was convicted, of failing to report the death to the coroner. The Canadian Medical Protective Association issued a strong recommendation that an instrument count be held in every hospital in the country.

Attorney General Fred Cass then told reporters that although Shulman had overstepped the law in many of his inquiries, he did deserve credit for bringing many irregularities to light. For years, he said, doctors had broken the law by failing to report all unusual hospital deaths.

Despite Shulman’s popularity with the lay public, there is a considerable body of opinion that Shulman - style inquests, which often examine circumstances not directly linked to the death in question, are unfair even to ordinary citizens involved. As a result the Law Society of Upper Canada is studying the coroner system of Ontario and one of their major recommendations is likely to be that lawyers replace doctors as coroners since they are better acquainted with the laws of evidence and procedure. Ontario's McRuer Royal Commission on Civil Liberties is also studying the present coroner system and has been told by university professor Stuart Ryan that hospital administrators and employees need protection “particularly when the coroner or chief coroner develops the continued on pape 35

enthusiasm of a crusader.” J. J. Robinette. one of Ontario's leading criminal lawyers, says reputations can be unjustly ruined under the present system, and points out that since an inquest is not a court, rules of evidence do not apply and witnesses don't have the right of legal counsel.

Morton Shulman. the people's watchdog, and Morton Shulman. the erstwhile wolf of Bay Street, don't quite add up to Jekyll - Hyde stature, but they certainly show widely divergent facets of one personality. Shul man's sudden wealth was. in fact, almost accidental. With beginner's luck he made fifteen thousand dollars in his first deal — at a time when he had only four hundred dollars to his name. He startled seasoned plungers by amassing a fortune by speculating in

— of all things — bonds. Bonds are always offered for order prior to official issue date at a fraction under their ultimate market value, and sedate financial institutions were traditionally the only interested parties. Until Shulman. that is. He began ordering up to four million dollars in bonds at one time, and selling them at a marginal

— but certain — profit on their day of official issue.

Then he turned to a complex business called “puts and calls” which, if it sounds anything like a child's parlor game, is anything but. Oversimplified, it consists of selling options to buy stocks at a set price on some future date. If the stock went down or even remained static. Shulman—the option seller — made a profit. When in 1961 Shul man's partner. Wilfred Pos! uns. sued the Toronto Stock Exchange for withdrawing his license to trade, the judge trying the case admitted he had tremendous difficulty understanding puts and calls.

Posluns lost the case, and the judgment commented on Shulman's testimony: “Unquestionably Dr. Shulman is blessed with a brilliant and facile mind. However, his performance as a witness probably suffered because of being so endowed, for at times he responded so quickly as to invite the notion he was too glib to be entirely truthful.”

The trial marked the end of Shulman's major stock-market adventures, though he admits to still dabbling — and to usually making money. In addition, he has his private practice, and his job of chief coroner, which occupy most of his time, but provide hardly enough money to run his house

— a turreted miniature castle in Toronto's Forest Hill Village (eight bathrooms. two swimming pools — one inside, one out — and some four acres of grounds). The gardener lives in and parks his two-year-old black Cadillac in the driveway, where it looks impressive alongside the Shulmans' cars — a couple of compacts.

Shulman received me there one day recently. I expected to be greeted by a butler, but Shulman’s wife Gloria, a rather stunning brunette who bubbles w'ith gaiety and says she’s “terribly proud” of her husband, opened the door instead. She disappeared with the tw'o children while Shulman happily prowled the house, showing off a collection of objets d'art which includes what Shulman thinks is the second-largest private collection of Krieghoff paintings next to mining

magnate M. J. Boylen’s. He owns the odd Renoir, rare Belgian and Indian tapestries, ivory sculptures from China and. in current pride of place, an ornate gilt clock from the Orient which by some mysterious process becomes a miniature waterfall when it strikes the hour.

We sat. this impeccably groomed rebel and I. under the eyes of a snarling Bengal tiger-skin rug. an incongruous memento of a traffic accident he and his wife had while holidaying in India. Near Delhi, the tiger leaped out from underbrush at the roadside. Shulman had no time to stop or swerve, struck the beast and killed it.

Shulman talked intensely of the single act he considers his most important. Fast year, ignoring a ruling from the attorney - general’s department. Shulman agreed to let researchers from Toronto’s Banting Institute inspect pituitary glands from the bodies of accident victims. Previously. researchers had had access only to bodies of those who died in hospital and whose glands reflected their illnesses. As a result, five new cell types in the body's master gland have been identified and Dr. Calvin Fzriti. who leads the research team, says this information will have almost inestimable medical value.

Now’ Shulman has extended similar facilities to University of Toronto scientists attempting to perfect techniques of transplanting healthy heart valves from accident victims to heartdisease patients. Other researchers are permitted to study children's bodies to learn more about other aspects of heart disease.

Shulman told me, “There has been great misconception about what I am doing. I have criticized quacks, of which there are very few: private hospitals with inadequate facilities, of which there are very few; doctors attempting to cover up their own or someone else’s incompetence — and there are very few of them. I don't believe any disclosures made at inquests I have ordered have damaged public faith in doctors and hospitals.

“Permitting researchers to attend autopsies as long as relatives don't object — and we ask their written permission first — can only do good. It could dwarf everything else I have done — a wonderful new dimension to the value of the coroner system. Thurston says it should be permitted, and so do most authorities where the coroner system is a vital part of the community and not just a place to hide mistakes.

“I wish I could see the end of my battles. But I think there's going to be more trouble. There's very little consideration shown by the attorneygeneral's department for the difficulties we face, and I don’t propose to permit that situation to continue.”

This he said in April. By now’ he has probably turned up on newspaper front pages a few more times. For Morton Philip Shulman is an unrepentant rebel not daunted by the fear of losing his job. With a million dollars. more or less, he can afford not to be. ★