A Special Calling

Summary Written by John Blick
"I knew with utter certainty that this was something I really had to do, and I would not budge."

- A Special Calling, page 41

The Big Idea


"Can you not appreciate that you have neither the intelligence nor the emotional stability to graduate in medicine and succeed as a physician?"- A Special Calling, page 41

…said the increasingly exasperated assistant dean as Gordon Bell stood before him. Dr. Bell wouldn’t accept “no”. In frustration, the assistant dean arranged for Gordon to see a professor of psychology in the hope that the psychologist could make Gordon understand his inadequacies. Gordon saw the meeting with the psychologist as another opportunity to make his dream happen and made the best of the psychologist’s open mind thereby gaining a valuable ally who intervened in his application process and ultimately championed his acceptance into medical school. Gordon turned his lingering anger at the assistant dean into a powerful motivator; “I’ll show him if it’s the last thing I do!” His study habits improved and he received his medical degree in 1943.

Insight #1

It's never too late to start over

"...people rarely live to the limit of their abilities, and ... they possess powers that they habitually fail to use."- William James, quoted in A Special Calling, page 118

In the early days, Dr. Bell opened his home as a clinic for people with mental health problems. To his surprise, the first people to arrive were alcoholics. Their alternative was jail or the locked psychiatric wards. Alcoholics were considered moral degenerates and hopeless cases by the medical community of the time. Dr. Bell became determined to help these people and soon became tarred with the same stigma; the attitude was, “you can disregard him; he treats drunks”. He was even investigated by his own medical association as his pioneering work was regarded as disreputable and suspicious.

Dr. Bell would tell the chronically drunk offenders “that they had important reservoirs of unused abilities, and that when combined with their friends, their families and their associates, this currently unused power could provide them with a strong new start in life.” (page 118)

Dr. Bell applied the words to himself as he endured personal tragedies, professional setbacks and a chosen profession that was determined to pull him down.

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Insight #2

Learn from the students

"Remain a student for life."- A Special Calling, page 18

Two themes had a profound effect on Dr. Bell’s life: 1) The need to “remain a student for my entire life, and not to be satisfied only with what I learned during my school years” and 2) The golden rule – to love your neighbour as yourself, but “no better than yourself”. One needs a balanced regard for oneself and others as the basis for productive interaction with people.

Canadian medicine had few resources and no training on how to treat alcoholics. Dr. Bell had to learn from his patients. His patients became his teachers. These men and women were some of the most intelligent people he had met and gave him unrivalled insight into the causes and effects of their condition; they would even alert him to the tricks they would play while drunk. Dr. Bell simply listened, learned and developed an effective treatment strategy that thrives to this day.

A Special Calling is a book about a true Canadian hero who wanted to help. We can relate to Gordon Bell’s childhood anecdotes and with the tragedies and joys of his life. Above all else though, A Special Calling is a story about achieving great things out of the spirit of contribution to others. This is a story of deep belief in one’s guiding principles and a determination to succeed despite, at times, overwhelming odds. Dr. Gordon Bell’s life can connect with anyone who wants to leave behind something of lasting value.

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Gordon Bell

R. Gordon Bell, M.D., a pioneer in addiction treatment in Canada, founded the Donwood Institute, the first public hospital for addiction in Canada, which he later turned over to the province of Ontario. In 1984, he and his daughter Linda, founded Bellwood Health Services which remains a centre of innovation in addiction treatment to this day.

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