Photo: Nadina Paraschuk

By Gillian Woodford

Back in the late 1950s a bright young student named Dorothy Thomas Edding, on her graduation from high school decided she wanted to study physiotherapy. As there was no program in her native Jamaica, she had no choice but to study abroad. Inspired by her father’s best friend who had attended McGill University, she chose to study there, and left the sunny island for snowy Montreal. Three decades later, she helped found the country’s first and only university-based School of Physical Therapy at the University of the West Indies, in Kingston, allowing aspiring physiotherapists to study and work closer to home.

It was 1990 and Dr. Thomas Edding, Associate Professor in the School of Physical and Occupational Therapy (SPOT) in the Faculty of Medicine at McGill, was doing a stint as an external examiner for the Canadian Physiotherapy Association, evaluating the physiotherapy diploma program offered by then at a school in Kingston. “When I was giving feedback I recommended that energies should be geared toward recruiting more faculty and becoming a School or Department within the Faculty of Medical Sciences at the University of the West Indies,” she recalls.

It struck Dr. Thomas Edding that, given her own interest and experience in physiotherapy education and curriculum development, and her desire to help students from her homeland, she should focus on the possible realization of these recommendations.

Soon she was facing the daunting task of applying for a grant from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) to support the revision of the existing curriculum to meet the standards for a BSc program. Two years later, in 1992, the grant was awarded. “They were very careful about who they gave these grants to, so when I got it, it was a real coup,” she says.

During the CIDA grant’s period, from 1992 to 1999, Dr. Thomas Edding travelled frequently to Kingston, negotiating with the government and the Faculty of Medical Sciences at the University of the West Indies to grant the degree, meeting the diploma teachers and building a BSc curriculum from scratch. “We couldn’t impose the McGill curriculum on them,” says Dr. Thomas Edding. “I conducted a survey of relevant disabilities and rehabilitation facilities in the Islands so the curriculum would reflect what they were going to be treating.” Dr. Thomas Edding’s role as Chair of the Curriculum Committee for SPOT at McGill and her involvement in accrediting physiotherapy programs across Canada for the Canadian Physiotherapy Association helped.

Emphasizing the practical aspects of physiotherapy while making learning fun was key to her own teaching style, and Dr. Thomas Edding was keen to pass these on to the new program. Among physiotherapy graduates of McGill, Dr. Thomas Edding is famous for her sometimes unorthodox teaching methods. “My speciality was orthopaedics, and in that field we’re always assessing gait,” she explains. “And if you’re going to analyse and treat it, you need to know what muscles are moving how and when at the hip, the knee, and the ankle. So, I would put my leotard on and I would get up in front of the podium and do the actions, move my hip forward, and they would have to tell me what muscles were actually working in the hip, the knee and the ankle. Past students tell me they have never forgotten that picture!”

Dr. Thomas Edding arranged for several of the staff from the diploma program in Kingston to come up to attend McGill in order  to upgrade their qualifications ahead of the School’s launch. “The staff there were really cooperative – they were ready for it, they really wanted the change,” she says. “In all there were about nine people who were here – three working towards Master’s degrees and the others at specialized levels, like gerontology. They had to go through winters here – but they endured it!” She persuaded McGill to free up the students to go back to Jamaica to teach when they were needed. “The McGill faculty were fantastic. They also travelled to Jamaica to give courses as needed.”

Dr. Thomas Edding recalls that the infrastructure in Kingston sometimes posed certain challenges but with the provision of books for the library and computers for all staff there were significant changes.

In 2001, eleven years after she first had the idea, the University of the West Indies began accepting students for a BSc in Physical Therapy. The first group graduated in 2004 and Dr. Thomas Edding was enormously proud. For the first few years, there was a fair bit of back and forth between the new School and McGill’s but that subsided gradually as the new program came into its own. The School was fully incorporated into the Faculty of Medical Sciences in 2006 and now offers an MSc program in addition to the BSc. The School presented Dr. Thomas Edding with a plaque in 2009 thanking her for her efforts.

“I look back now and think, yeah it was a bit of work,” Dr. Thomas Edding says with a chuckle. “For the time the grant lasted I was going there sometimes two or three times a year – and I was not in the sun, I can tell you.”

Dr. Thomas Edding retired several years ago but remains active at McGill, as a member of the McGill Committee for Retired Professors and as Director of the Women’s Alumni Association. She is also very involved in the community; she is chairperson of the Scholarship Selection Committee for the Quebec Black Medical Association and also co-chair of Education at the Women’s Canadian Club of Montreal.

Dr. Thomas Edding is proud of the work she did all those years ago to give something back to her home country. “It was really rewarding,” she says. “The effort paid off because it increased not only the number enrolled in the program but also the effectiveness of the faculty. It gave prospective students the opportunity to study there who might not have had the means to travel – not just the financial aspect, but being away from their family. The students themselves and the people who taught in the program expressed that it benefited them. Thanks to Canada, the McGill School of Physical and Occupational Therapy,  and all the individuals who made this project possible.”

February 22, 2018