International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War Canada (IPPNWC) and our mother organization IPPNW are mourning the death of one of our trailblazing leaders, Dr. Mary-Wynne Ashford.
Mary-Wynne was a family and palliative care physician in Victoria, British Columbia.
After several years as an Edmonton high school teacher, she graduated in 1981 from the University of Calgary as a Doctor of Medicine.
A lifelong learner and educator, she earned her PhD in Education from Simon Fraser University in 1997. Her thesis related to violence perpetrated by adolescents. She sat on a UNICEF-UNESCO Advisory Board to draft international standards for the prevention of violence against children and youth.
She was adamant that her role as a doctor went far beyond caring for her individual patients: to advocate for peace and the elimination of nuclear weapons was part of her ‘duty of care’. She would often introduce herself by saying “I’m a medical doctor and a campaigner against nuclear weapons.”
She felt deeply about this duty, and it became a lifelong passion. She never did anything by halves. After deciding to become a physician activist, and despite often being the only woman in the room, she stepped into a leadership role as President of Canadian Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.
Her talent for communication and public speaking was quickly realized and she was recruited onto the Council of IPPNW, becoming co-President from 1998-2002.
IPPNW had received the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize because it had reframed nuclear weapons as an existential threat to public health. In this way, it had undermined the argument that these horrific weapons were needed to ensure security. Mary-Wynne led two IPPNW delegations to North Korea and in 2018 walked with 1200 women across the Reunification Bridge to a peace park in the DMZ between South and North Korea, again highlighting the vital role of women as peace activists.
Her acclaimed book Enough Blood Shed: 101 Solutions to Violence, Terror and War is used in Canadian peace education classes and has been translated into Japanese and Korean. With her Celtic gift for words, she could write an article for a medical journal in a weekend and an op-ed piece in an afternoon.
Her TED-X talks reflect a passion for the subject matter, an engaging stage presence that would often end with a song. Given the urgent need to “break the silence” on the prevention of nuclear war, she encouraged you to accept any invitation to give a talk or write a letter to the editor. Her guidelines for doing so were simple: “speak from the heart”.
Sharing the stage with Mary-Wynne in front of hundreds of high-school students taught me the power of storytelling. Her voice was soft, soothing, even comforting, despite the somber message. She had charisma—whereas I had the power point. In recognition of our work, we were delighted to receive the 2019 Distinguished Achievement Award from Canadians for a Nuclear Weapons Convention.
In the same year, she was awarded the Doctors of BC Medal of Excellence recognizing her as a distinguished physician. For Mary-Wynne this validated advocacy for the abolition of nuclear weapons as within a doctor’s domain of expertise.
Recognizing the need for reform of the United Nations, she contacted the European authors of a ground-breaking book, Global Governance and the Emergence of Global Institutions for the 21st Century. With the help of a small team, she developed a nine-week webinar series that she planned to roll out in schools and other institutions in 2023.
I was privileged to call Mary-Wynne my friend, colleague, and kindred spirit. Her enthusiasm, tireless energy, intellect, and wisdom were an inspiration for all.
Dr. Jonathan Down, President, IPPNW Canada, Victoria, BC