Dr. Langer
The "UHN Oral History Project" launches with the story of Dr. Bernie Langer, an exceptional surgeon and pioneering leader whose career at Toronto General Hospital spanned almost 40 years until his retirement in 2002. (Photo: UHN)

"If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants."

Sir Isaac Newton

Liver transplants. The Surgeon Scientist Program. The Soham & Shaila Ajmera Family Transplant Centre.

All cornerstones of UHN's world-class surgical and transplant programs.

Forty years ago these pillars upon which UHN today defines its excellence were not the norm. They did not even exist. And all three can be credited to the vision of Dr. Bernie Langer.

Dr. Langer was an exceptional surgeon and pioneering leader whose career at Toronto General Hospital (TG) spanned almost 40 years from 1963 until his retirement in 2002.

To recognize the achievements of past leaders and celebrate our history UHN Public Affairs & Communications is creating an audio archive called "The UHN Oral History Project."​

These are one-on-one interviews with staff whose career legacy helped advance patient care as well as shape the UHN we know today. They will serve as a permanent record to inform future generations how UHN came to be one of the top research and teaching hospitals in the world.

Each interview will be posted on the UHN website as well as stored in UHN Archives for posterity.

Introduced 'Surgeon Scientist Program'

In the early 1980s, Dr. Langer recognized the need to expand and formalize surgical practice to include conducting research to benefit patients.

"What I was looking for is to combine the existing outstanding clinical training in Toronto with the culture of research – doing research and integrating research with clinical practice," explains Dr. Langer.

In 1983, he created the "Surgeon Scientist Program" at the University of Toronto (U of T) whereby surgeons were trained in laboratory practice and research. It reversed the trend of sending our brightest and best outside the country for training – and risking the loss of their talents. The program was so successful it became the template for the 1994 Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons "Clinician Investigator Program," which still exists today.

In 1985, Dr. Langer pioneered the first liver transplant in Toronto and contributed to laying the groundwork for the creation of UHN's Multi-Organ Transplant Program (MOTP), which is now known as The Soham & Shaila Ajmera Family Transplant Centre.

In 1989, the MOTP officially was launched, bringing all UHN transplant programs under one department with Dr. Langer the Interim Director.

Dr. Langer's list of accomplishments are many and earned him numerous awards including an Officer of the Order of Canada (2002) and induction into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame (2015).

Nicknamed "The Hawk" for his precision and skill as a surgeon, Dr. Langer was also a deeply-caring physician and while President of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada was instrumental in the creation of the Canadian Patient Safety Institute.

First Jew on Toronto General's full-time surgical staff

Perhaps the most satisfying of his accomplishments came at the outset of his career. It was the early 1960s and young Dr. Langer was assessing his job prospects after graduating from the U of T Medical School.

His dream job was to be a staff surgeon at Toronto General Hospital. But no Jew had ever held such a position. In fact, as Professor Edward Shorter details in his book Partnership for Excellence, up until that time Toronto hospitals kept secret lists of names and quotas that limited the hiring of Jews.

So, it was a turning point in hospital hiring culture when TG hired Dr. Langer in 1963. It's a moment that the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame recognized as a turning point in breaking down anti-Semitic barriers that existed in Toronto hospitals at the time.

Of the hiring that set his trailblazing career in motion, Dr. Langer is matter-of-fact.

"It was something that was waiting to happen," he says, "It was a time of change….and I was lucky enough to be the person who arrived when they were prepared for it to happen."

Dr. Bernie Langer was a TG staff surgeon from 1963 until 1972 when he was appointed head of the hospital's Division of General Surgery. In 1982, he stepped into the position of Chair of the Department of Surgery at the U of T while continuing his TG surgical practice.

Dr. Langer retired from UHN in 2002.

Listen to Behind the Breakthrough: Behind the Breakthrough Special Edition – "UHN Oral History Project" with Dr. Bernie Langer on Apple Podcasts | Download the transcript 

Back to Top