Dr. Michael Baker came from humble beginnings, having grown up “with immigrant parents at Dovercourt and Bloor” in Toronto and going to “Beis Yehuda Talmud Torah to learn my bar mitzvah.” Though he’s had many honours in his life, his most memorable one was “lunching with her royal highness, the Princess Margaret.”
He is now set to receive an honorary doctorate degree from the University of Haifa, which will be awarded to him at the Mount Carmel Dinner in Toronto on Nov. 4.
“I’m thrilled to be getting this,” Baker said. “Having an honorary PhD from a distinguished university, and an Israeli university at that, is really wonderful.”
The funds raised from the dinner will be split evenly to buy a pair of specialized neuroimaging machines, one for the Toronto Western Hospital and one for the Helmsley Health Discovery Tower in Haifa.
Baker has a long and distinguished career as a physician, but he said that the University of Haifa chose to honour him for two reasons: his contributions to research in leukemia and blood-related disorders; and his track record of medical leadership, which notably includes 18 years as the physician-in-chief of Toronto’s University Health Network (UHN).
After graduating medical school, Baker was offered a residency in internal medicine and hematology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. He next took a job at Toronto Western Hospital doing research and clinical trials.
“My wife used to refer to me as a mouse killer, because we had a fundamental research program on leukemia. It was mostly on human leukemia. That wasn’t a fair comment,” he said.
Baker worked at Toronto Western for 12 years, from 1972 to 1984, developing it into a centre for hematology research. Because of his efforts there, he was offered a job at the University of Toronto. For the next 10 years, he led U of T’s hematology program and built the leukemia cancer program at Toronto General Hospital.
In the mid-1990s, Baker was promoted to physician-in-chief, which is how he came to lunch with Princess Margaret. He lasted 18 years in that role, which is supposed to have a maximum term of 10.
Nowadays, Baker works as a consultant in hematology and other medical issues, and still runs a practice.
Throughout his long career, there are a few things that Baker is most proud of. The first is his commitment to seeing patients. No matter what position he has occupied, he said that he has always set aside time to practice medicine.
“Many people go on to leadership positions and wind up, in a sense, in the head office in the ivory tower. And if I were critical, I would say sometimes forget about the purpose of the whole enterprise is to have the person in front of you, who’s the patient, get the best possible outcome,” said Baker.
He is also proud of how far leukemia research has come since he started working on it. He noted that acute leukemia used to be one of the world’s most miserable diseases, an almost automatic death sentence, and now it can be cured much of the time.
Another source of pride for Baker is how many more women were hired and promoted in the UHN when he was the physician-in-chief, which was a specific goal of his when he took the job.
“When I became the chief, we had 18 women doctors on our faculty, out of 150 (to) 180 doctors. The rest were men. When I stepped down as physician-in-chief 18 years later, we had 95 women on the faculty, several of whom were full professors, several of whom were heads of divisions, some of whom went on to be presidents of hospitals,” he said.