Famous Canadians

Canada-FlagHappy Canada Day! In honor of the day, I thought I’d talk about five of the many, many Canadians who have become world famous over the years for their extraordinary contributions to science, arts and entertainment. Maybe you’ve heard of them,or maybe not. Two of these five became famous at home, and two had to leave home to achieve fame. One even became famous in outer space!

Deanna Durbin was a famous actress in the 1930s and 40s. Hers is a very interesting story. Born in 1921 in Winnipeg, she moved at an early age to California, and because of her beautiful singing voice, soon had talent scouts knocking at her door. She signed her first contract with MGM in 1936 at the age of fourteen. She made a succession of films for Universal that saved the company from bankruptcy (none I’ve ever heard of, but you can look them up on IMDB). Back in the day, she was a bigger box office draw than Shirley Temple. By the time she was 21 she was the highest paid female actress of her time. Little girls played with Deanna Durbin dolls. In 1939 she shared a juvenile Academy Award with Mickey Rooney. But she was never comfortable with the fame. In 1948, after making “For the love of Mary” at age 27, she simply walked away. She married a French director and lived the rest of her life anonymously in the French countryside. Despite repeated offers to make more films, she never went back to Hollywood. 

Yvonne De Carlo was born in Vancouver in 1922. At 18, she and her mother moved to Hollywood to make it big, but at first all she could get were bit parts, and had to dance in a chorus line to pay the bills. Eventually she got her first feature, and her career took off. For a time in the 1940s and 50s she was one of the elite actresses of Hollywood. Her most famous movie role was as Sephora, the wife of Moses in “The Ten Commandments”. But by the early sixties, good roles were drying up. She took the part of Lily Munster in the TV series “The Munsters” in 1964 mainly because she was in debt and needed to pay off the medical expenses of her husband, a stunt man who was badly injured in the making of the 1962 movie “How the West was Won”.  She had no idea that Lily would be the role for which she was most remembered!

Dr. Fredrick Banting stumbled upon the discovery of insulin. The WWI medical officer was awarded the Military Cross for heroism in 1919. Despite being wounded in the battle of Cambrai in 1918, he helped other wounded men for sixteen hours, until finally told to stop by another doctor. Upon his return to Canada, he set up a practice in London, Ontario and lectured part-time at the University of Western Ontario on orthopedics and anthropology. While preparing for a lecture on the pancreas in 1920, he read about insulin, the hormone believed to metabolize sugars. Researchers at the time realized that a lack of insulin resulted in diabetes, but were unable to extract insulin from the pancreas. Their efforts to that point had resulted in the insulin being destroyed. After reading the research, Dr. Banting came up with a plan for safely extracting insulin. He and a team at the University of Toronto worked on his idea, and were successful. Soon a treatment for people with diabetes was developed. Dr. Banting won the 1923 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine.

Sir Sandford Fleming was an interesting man of many talents. The Scottish born Fleming immigrated to Canada in 1845 and spent much of his career as a surveyor and engineer for Canadian railroads. But he was also an inventor and innovator. He designed Canada’s first postage stamp, left a huge body of surveying and map making, engineered much of the Intercolonial Railway and the Canadian Pacific Railway, and was a founding member of the Royal Society of Canada and founder of the Royal Canadian Institute, a science organization. But his lasting legacy is as the proposer of the worldwide standardized time zones we know today. After missing a train in 1876 in Ireland because its printed schedule listed p.m. instead of a.m., he proposed a single 24-hour clock for the entire world, located at the centre of the Earth and not linked to any surface meridian. It took many years of persuading, but by 1929 all major countries had accepted time zones.

Commander Chris Hadfield

Commander Chris Hadfield

Commander Chris Hadfield is the first Canadian to walk in space, and the first Canadian to command the International Space Station. After joining the Canadian Armed Forces in 1978, he soon began racking up honors and accomplishments. In 1980, he was named top pilot in basic flight training, and in 1983 graduated as top pilot in Basic Jet Training. After training as a fighter pilot, he flew CF-18s for the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). In 1992 he was selected to become one of four new Canadian astronauts and has been involved with several space flights on American and Russian crafts. In March 2013 he took command of the International Space Station, and became a rock star to many Canadians because of his tweets of pictures from the ISS, playing his guitar in space, and the many videos he made of life on board the station. Commander Hadfield has since retired from the Canadian Space Agency, but continues to deliver information about space and environmental awareness through speaking engagements and his recent book “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life”. He tweets at https://twitter.com/Cmdr_Hadfield

So Happy Canada Day to my fellow Canucks. To paraphrase William Shatner (also a Canuck) may you boldly go where no other Canadian has gone before. Cheers!


Famous Canadians — 10 Comments

    • Honestly, I had never heard of Deanna Durbin until we moved to Winnipeg where she was born. She has such an interesting story. Imagine walking away from all that fame and fortune. She must have been a very strong and determined person.

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