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Dalhousie Medical School dean receives Order of Canada

Posted by Cory Burris on January 21, 2015 in News
Dr. Tom Marrie, dean of Dalhousie Medical School. (Danny Abriel photo)
Dr. Tom Marrie, dean of Dalhousie Medical School. (Danny Abriel photo)

Dean of Dalhousie Medical School, Dr. Tom Marrie, was recently named a member of the Order of Canada, the second highest award of merit a Canadian may receive. Dr. Marrie was one of only two recipients from Nova Scotia.

The award celebrates Dr. Marrie's outstanding achievements as an infectious disease specialist, researcher and medical educator, and pays tribute to the impact that these contributions have made on the lives of Canadians.

"My reaction was certainly one of surprise," Dr. Marrie admits when asked about receiving news of the award. "It was very unexpected."

Dr. Marrie’s award falls under the Order of Canada’s member level, a category noting outstanding local or regional contributions in a special field or activity. But Dr. Marrie’s influence in infectious disease research and health care spreads far beyond Canada’s eastern provinces.

Four decades of pneumonia research

Although he describes the Order of Canada’s criteria and decision-making process as very secretive, Dr. Marrie’s achievements are a worthy match for the award. He’s been studying pneumonia in Canada since the late ‘70s, conducting research that’s led to better care of patients, new discoveries and effective medical interventions.

He’s credited with showing that the pathway of care of pneumonia—linking important decisions like whether to treat someone at home or admit them to hospital, what antibiotics to prescribe, and when to determine a patient can return home—results in better health outcomes.

“Putting all those things together and having protocols to treat people does improve care,” says Dr. Marrie. “It results in more people being treated at home, surviving pneumonia, and shorter lengths of time in hospital.”

His ability to connect the dots like this put Dr. Marrie’s name at the top of the list more than once for interesting medical cases. He recalls an outbreak of pneumonia in 1982. Originally labeled as Legionnaire’s disease by the media, he proved it was Q fever, tracing its source to a cat carrying Coxiella burnetti, a microorganism previously only known to cause illness in people who worked in slaughterhouses in Australia.

“You don’t think too much about making discoveries like that,” says Dr. Marrie. “It’s great in the sense that you know what’s causing an illness and now you can treat people. But your focus is always on how to keep your research going.”

Currently, Dr. Marrie has two research projects underway in Alberta. The studies are examining outbreaks of invasive pneumococcal disease, which usually affects very young and elderly populations.

“We’re looking at the effectiveness of a vaccine,” explains Dr. Marrie. “We wanted to see what effect the vaccine had on children and follow this over time.”

High-calibre faculty

With Dr. Marrie’s recent award, Dalhousie Medical School now has a total of nine recipients of the Order of Canada. Each has made various contributions to the province and Canada, and collectively, they represent Dalhousie’s promise of service to our communities.

The careers of these recipients cover a wide range of fields and expertise: a family doctor in Halifax’s north end; a former dean of the medical school and founder of the first multiple sclerosis clinic in Nova Scotia; a pioneer of emergency medicine in the United States and lead on Canada’s effort to ban cluster bombs; a pediatric respirologist that developed treatments to allow children with cystic fibrosis to live into their adult years.

“It was humbling to join the others in the faculty that have received this award,” says Dr. Marrie. “I think this is a reflection of the high-quality of the faculty at the medical school and the contributions that they’ve made in Nova Scotia and beyond.”