Winnipeg scientist who found treatment for devastating illness among Order of Canada inductees

The list of distinguished Manitobans includes Marion Lewis, an esteemed medical researcher who made the Rh disease, which afflicted tens of thousands of babies, into an easily treatable and rare condition thanks to her work.

'A great delight,' says 93-year-old who saved lives by developing remedy to the Rh disease

Marion Lewis, right, with her sister Helen, seen in 1948, received the Order of Canada for her contributions in helping to fight Rh disease. (HSC Archives/Museum Children’s Hospital Collection Box 2 File Labe and Xray)

A renowned scientist who helped to effectively wipe out a disease, a tireless advocate for refugees and a retired hockey player are among the Manitobans receiving one of Canada's highest honours.

Eight Manitobans cracked the list of 83 people appointed to the Order of Canada, announced Thursday by Governor General Julie Payette.

The list of distinguished Manitobans includes Marion Lewis, an esteemed medical researcher who made the Rh disease, which afflicted tens of thousands of babies, into an easily treatable and rare condition thanks to her work.

"It is a great surprise and a great delight," Lewis, 93, told CBC Manitoba's Up to Speed host Ismaila Alfa. "I feel quite proud."

'Nothing less I would rather do'

She had just graduated from Gordon Bell High School, in 1943, when she got a job as a medical technician at Winnipeg General Hospital.

The field appealed to her right away. "There is nothing less I would rather do," so much so she was willing to work for $90 a month when the going rate of $125, she explained.

Marion Lewis, seen here in 1971, is being celebrated through the Order of Canada for her "inexhaustible devotion" to the prevention and treatment of Rh disease. (Winnipeg Tribune Personalities Newsclippings Index, U of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections)

By the next year, she joined the Rh laboratory in Winnipeg which was driven by the single-minded focus of eliminating the disease — a condition in which antibodies in a pregnant woman's blood destroy the baby's blood cells.

The laboratory's work was meticulous — testing blood, evaluating the disease's effect on various ethnic groups and performing autopsies on the babies, according to Lewis's biography on the University of Manitoba website.

The disease isn't common nowadays.

The laboratory's work, as Lewis put it, was "the beginning of the idea of prevention," she said Tuesday.

"Once that was done, there's really nothing more [to do] in the field and I moved into working in human genetics and gene mapping."

She is being celebrated "for her inexhaustible devotion to research and for her seminal contributions to the prevention and treatment of Rh disease," a statement from Payette's office said.

Lewis was inducted as an officer into the Order of Canada, along with Lotfollah Shafai, also of Winnipeg, for his contributions to the fields of electromagnetics and antenna and satellite development.

Six Manitobans were appointed as members of the Order of Canada. 

Longtime refugee advocate Tom Denton, seen in 2017, flips through waiting list of 30,000 refugees who want to come to Winnipeg. (Iris Yudai)

Former NHL player Reggie Leach, who won the Stanely Cup with the Philadelphia Flyers in the mid-1970s, is being commemorated for his contributions to hockey and promoting the role of sport in building healthy communities. Leach, who grew up in Riverton, Man., regularly speaks to Indigenous youth about his life and beating alcoholism. 

Tom Denton, executive director position at Hospitality House Refugee Ministry, has been appointed for championing the rights of refugees. He has been called "the godfather of the refugee settlement sector in Canada," U of M's website says.

Other Manitobans joining the honour roll are Patrick Crawford, for his contributions to dentistry; Mark Godden, for his work as a dancer and choreographer; David McLean, for his mastery of Delta and Chicago blues, and for giving back to Canadian musicians; and John Wade, for advocating patient safety in health care.

With files from Ismaila Alfa


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