Bringing CNS Members Together to Make Children’s Lives Better


Gordon Watters, MD

Gordon Watters, MD

Gordon Watters’ decision to attend college and study psychology was a difficult one for someone whose hockey excellence during his school days in Manitoba, and subsequently as an All-American forward skating with the Minnesota Gophers had attracted the attention of scouts for the New York Rangers. In fact, after completing a year of study he did interrupt his studies in order to play semi-pro hockey with the San Francisco Shamrocks. After a year, he returned to the University of Minnesota to complete his degree Magna Cum Laude. Although he undertook an additional year of graduate studies toward a Master’s Degree, he was again lured away from his studies of psychology, this time to attend medical school at the University of Manitoba Medical College. Attaining his M.D. degree in 1956, he completed a Rotating Internship (Winnipeg General Hospital and then one year of Residency in Pediatrics (Winnipeg Children’s Hospital). He then spent a year of Pediatrics residency at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, then remained in Cincinnati to complete a year of Pediatric Pathology in a program that had achieved international stature under the direction of Benjamin Harrison Landing.

Between 1960 and 1963, Watters trained in neurology at the University of Chicago. Neurology, neuropathology, and neurosurgery had distinguished histories in Chicago, nurtured in particular by Paul Bucy and Percival Bailey. Douglas Buchanan was among the gifted clinician-teachers they had recruited. At the time Watters arrived, Buchanan – who had trained at Glasgow, Cambridge, and Queen Square – had been at his post at the University of Chicago for 29 years and was famed for his Saturday morning clinical teaching rounds. Buchanan was a charismatic figure whose celebrated skills at the bedside of patients, remarkable analytical abilities, and not least his love of neurology (made obvious by the twinkle the solution to a neurological question brought to his eyes) seems to have engendered similar qualities in his distinguished cadre of students and trainees. Perhaps this Chicago experience accounts in part for the ways in which Watters resembled his first great mentor. Certainly his love for neurology, devotion to teaching, and success in attracting promising persons to his clinics and training program were to be similarly celebrated.

Upon completing his training, Watters returned to join the faculty at Winnipeg Children’s, remaining there for two years. This return was mandated by visa restrictions and interrupted Watters’ exploitation of research opportunities that he was keen to embrace. In 1965, however, Watters was able to join the faculty of Boston Children’s Hospital where another Buchanan trainee, Charlie Barlow, had been appointed Chair of Child Neurology. Watters participated in the well-known studies of spinal fluid engaged in by R. W. P. Cutler and Barlow. These studies involved both physiological and pathophysiological changes in the fluid and its CNS compartments. The studies resulted in normative data of considerable importance. Three successive papers of fundamental importance for which Watters was coauthor detailed the origin and turnover of CSF albumin and IgG. Work in many other laboratories would soon rely on this data in order to establish indexed values that would prove valuable in providing evidence for intrathecal inflammatory processes, particularly multiple sclerosis.

Dr. Watters pursued additional related studies that resulted in the publication of thoughtful observations on experimental brain edema, heritable and acquired hydrocephalus, and intraventricular chemotherapy. Over time he would, in addition, employ his understanding of CSF kinetics to carry out investigations on pharmacokinetic aspects of drug delivery to brains of infants. During his tenure at Boston Children’s Watters had the inestimable opportunity to observe at close hand another legendary “father of child neurology”: Randy Byers was in the final years of his career, having been at his post at Children’s for more than thirty years.. It was perhaps from Byers that Watters acquired additional features of his own well-known diagnostic acumen and some measure of the strong sense of responsibility to the welfare of children that were key elements of Byers’ personality. In Charlie Barlow, Watters had another mentor with exceptional capacity to diagnose and manage neurological problems of children, a person who, like Watters, had a knack for reducing a great deal of information into a succinct diagnosis. Barlow also had the knack shared by Watters for attracting trainees to his program.

It was on the recommendations of Buchanan and Barlow that Preston Robb appointed Watters Director of Pediatric Neurology at the Montreal Children’s Hospital in 1969. He would hold this position with distinction for twenty-five years. Preston Robb was to become, with Buchanan, Byers, and Barlow, the fourth member of his personal quartet of treasured mentors. Watters continued to pursue an interest in neuromuscular diseases that he manifested in Boston by the publication of two papers, Nine additional papers on various aspects of hereditary and acquired diseases of nerve and muscle would follow in Montreal. These contributions have improved recognition and understanding of myotonic and Duchenne dystrophies, heritable neuropathies, dermatomyositis, anterior horn cell diseases, symptomatic neurofibromata, cranial neuropathy, and the spectrum of heritable hypomeylinative neuropathies.

Dr. Watters’ early interest in CSF physiology may have played a role in the several papers that he published with Preston Robb on SSPE. His interest in inflammatory diseases led to excellent papers on infectious encephalitis, meningitis, aseptic meningitis, dermatomyositis, multiple sclerosis, Fisher syndrome, and nephritic complication of Friedreich ataxia, Watters coauthored three important papers relevant to Cree encephalitis, an interesting and important condition now thought to be in the same family of illness as Aicardi-Goutierre syndrome. In his total series of 64 full-length papers or chapters, many other subjects were wisely considered by Watters. More than half of his publications concern various aspects heritable disorders of the central or peripheral nervous system, seven consider aspects of epilepsy, seven neurobiochemistry, four stroke, and three complicated migraine.

Dr. Watters has been active in many Canadian and American professional societies. He has served as President of the Canadian Association for Child Neurology and on numerous committee assignments for these societies, as well as held membership on the Education Committee of the Association of Neurologists of Quebec. His wisdom and practicality benefited the numerous University Committees on which he served at McGill. He served for a year as Chair of the Developmental and Cognitive Disabilities Thematic Sub-Group of the Neurosciences Integration Work Group of McGill. He was similarly active on committees for Montreal Children’s Hospital, including twelve years as Co-Chair of the Research Ethics Board. He has received two prestigious teaching awards and as served as ad hoc reviewer for four prestigious journals. Since he stepped down as Chair of Neurology at Montreal Children’s in 1994, he has remained active as Professor of Neurology and Pediatrics.

The qualities universally acknowledged by his colleagues to set him apart from other excellent neurologists include his capacity to elicit accurate history and then to perform an appropriately detailed examination even under the potentially difficult circumstances that may arise with a sick child and worried family. He is able to do this because he sets patient and family at ease while at the same time he recognizes and addresses such worries and stress as may arise during the course of evaluation and treatment. His intuition as to what to ask is legendary, as is his skill at the formulation of a provisional diagnosis that is said rarely to have been disproven by his subsequent well-tailored selection of tests. He is aware that there is more to caring for patients than diagnosis and treatment. The additional step is caring about the patient and what Mike Shevell has termed “their intrinsic humanity.” Since his return to Montreal, Dr. Watters has extended his concern to embrace the needs of the aboriginal peoples of Baffin Island, whom he visits each year. Residents who accompany him usually regard the experience as memorable and highly valuable to their professional development.

Dr. Watters remains tirelessly engaged in teaching, an activity that, for him, has never lost its charm. His contagious enthusiasm and enjoyment of neurological formulation that he demonstrates likely motivates his students and trainees the same way Buchanan did Watters so many years prior. Indeed, as Mike Shevell has observed, through their experiences with Watters, these young individuals acquire not only the lessons and example of Watters, but as well the influence of his four treasured mentors, Buchanan, Byers, Barlow, and Robb. This is almost always the way it is with a great teacher.

Dr. Watters has also remained a tireless learner of all the new and interesting findings and techniques that may affect the practice of the child neurologist.

It is not surprising that most of his trainees have chosen to remain in academic settings. This is not because academic practice is in some way superior to private practice – it is because he has made those he teaches revere the opportunity to be teachers themselves. He has retained throughout his career a well balanced life. He has enjoyed the support of his wife Pat and the joy of two daughters and a son. And he has continued to enjoy ice hockey. In September 2003 he was inducted into the University of Minnesota Sports Hall of Fame. Should he ever wonder what his life might have been like had he chosen a path leading to slapshots with the New York Rangers, others must wonder what would have resulted from the loss of his monumental impact on child neurology and the lives of children that he has cared for and their families. Whatever the neurological equivalent of a slapshot is, it can justly be said that Dr. Watters deserves our #5 Jersey, as the Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion of Child Neurology.