In Memoriam: Dr. John Last

Posted on Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Author: Dr. Melissa Brouwers

Photo of Dr. John Last

The emeritus professor with the School of Epidemiology and Public Health was a prolific author, scientist and teacher, and is remembered as a tremendous academic, generous with time and thought, and a true gentleman.


It is with sadness that I inform the University of Ottawa of the passing of Dr. John Last, an emeritus professor with the School of Epidemiology and Public Health (SEPH) and an Officer, Order of Canada (2012). Born and educated in Australia, he graduated from the University of Adelaide medical school in 1949. After five years of hospital training, five years in general practice, and intercontinental voyages as a ship's surgeon, he trained in epidemiology and public health at the University of Sydney and as visiting fellow in the MRC Social Medicine Research Unit in London.

Following posts in Australia, the United States and Scotland, Dr. Last joined the University of Ottawa as a professor of epidemiology and community medicine in 1969. Dr. Last was the chair of the Department of Epidemiology and Community Medicine (now SEPH) from 1970 to 1978. He was a prolific author, scientist and teacher. Schools of public health as well as community medicine and epidemiology throughout the world use his reference texts to this day. Of particular note, Dr. Last authored several editions of Public Health and Human Ecology and A Dictionary of Public Health (2006). He also edited several books, including Public Health and Preventive Medicine (eponymously known as "Maxcy-Rosenau-Last") and A Dictionary of Epidemiology that has been translated into several languages. His use of the metaphor of the iceberg of disease, first published in the Lancet in 1963, is an enduring concept in epidemiological teaching of disease, distinguishing between what is visible or known (clinical epidemiology) and what lurks below the surface (population-based epidemiology).

Dr. John Last being presented the honour of Officer of the Order of Canada by His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston.

Dr. Last was named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2012; here, he is presented with the honour by His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston in November 2012. Photo credit : MCpl Dany Veillette, Rideau Hall.


Dr. John Last poses with his dictionaries.

Among his works, Dr. Last edited A Dictionary of Public Health and authored A Dictionary of Epidemiology. Photo credit: The Last family


A leader in the development of ethical standards for epidemiology and public health, Dr. Last led the International Epidemiological Association initiative to develop guidelines on ethical conduct of epidemiological research, practice, and teaching. In addition, he was a member of the Working Group of the Council for International Organizations of Medical Sciences that drafted International Guidelines for Ethical Review of Epidemiological Studies.

The outstanding contributions of Dr. Last were recognized by the international community through the several honours he was awarded. He was an honourary life member of the International Epidemiological Association, the American College of Epidemiology, the American Public Health Association, the UK Society for Social Medicine, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians and the British Medical Association.

SEPH celebrated Dr. Last with a well-attended festschrift in the spring of 2016. As incoming director of the School, it was a pleasure to have Dr. Last attend SEPH’s 50thanniversary celebration in the fall of 2018. Dr. Last was a tremendous academic — generous with time and thought — and a true gentleman. His family’s legacy continues to enrich the SEPH community via the Janet Wendy and John Last Lecture Series.

SEPH will plan a special celebration in the future.

We wish to extend our deepest sympathies to the Last family.


Melissa Brouwers

Melissa Brouwers, PhD
Professor and Director

École d'épidémiologie et de santé publique
School of Epidemiology and Public Health
Faculté de médecine | Faculty of Medicine
Université d'Ottawa | University of Ottawa

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