Monday, January 13, 2014

A world of legal history, no longer available to us

I get to practise some legal history from time to time; indeed I'm engaged in one of those projects currently. In connection with that, I went last October and spent a few hours with Sydney Robins, for the last fifteen years a retired justice of the Court of Appeal for Ontario.

Sydney Robins was one of that generation of Canadians who, around the time of the Second World War, excelled in law school, did graduate work (at Harvard) when hardly anyone did, and then could not get law jobs in Canada because they were Jewish.  He and his contemporaries overcame that obstacle by teaching, by forming their own firms, and generally by making themselves indispensable to clients and courts and the community. Fortunately, unlike their parents' generation, they saw barriers fall in Canada and Ontario Sydney Robins taught successfully, practised successfully, and acquired all the honours of his profession, from Treasurer of the Law Society of Ontario (the first Jewish one ever), to justice of the Court of Appeal for Ontario (happily neither the first nor the only Jew there), to special inquirer and commissioner into scores of matters where vast legal knowledge, good judgment, and humane common sense were required.  And in 2012 the Order of Ontario, whence the picture above (he's the one standing)

For a ninety year old guy, he was wonderfully kindly, alert, engaged, interested, and thoughtful when I spent time with him in October.  He seemed able to recall effortlessly the facts and the principles of any case that came up in our conversation.  So when I read on the weekend that he died last Friday, I had that sense one gets:  that a library of legal knowledge and wisdom had burned down.

Update, January 17:  Mark Reynolds writes:
I read your post on Sydney Robins the same day that I read Dr William Feindel had died. I had met him a few times when I worked at McGill, and occupied a similar place in his profession's historical firmament as did Robins. Feindel was a protegée of Wilder Penfield, and an innovator in neurosurgery in his own right. In his later years, he was heavily involved in the Osler Society and McGill's Osler Library, and served as a personal resource to visiting scholars at McGill doing research on Penfield and the early years of neurosurgery.
I only met him once or twice, never for scholarly purposes, but was impressed by his deep commitment to both preserving medical history and making it better appreciated in the field, as well as being famously generous with his time and knowledge for those in the field. 

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