Charles Sorbie 1931-2010

An orthopaedic surgeon, he dedicated himself to ‘God’s work—making lame people walk again’

Charles Sorbie was born on June 20, 1931, in Hamilton, Scotland, the youngest of five children to Charles Sorbie, who owned a small grocery business, and his wife, Hannah. An energetic boy with blue-grey eyes and dark, wavy hair, Charlie had a magnetic smile and an insatiable curiosity. His expansive memory made him an excellent student and talented thespian. Decades later, he could still recite Shakespearean soliloquies with confidence.

When Charlie was in his teens, cancer claimed his mother’s life. Though the loss was tough on him, he took comfort in the fact that she knew he’d gotten into medical school before she died. At just 16, he started at Glasgow University, where he also played on the rugby team. Charlie enjoyed working with his hands—growing up, he’d spent summers on Dytach Farm, milking cows and making cheese—and settled on orthopaedic surgery. He met Janet Wynne-Edwards, a doctor-in-training from the University of Aberdeen, at the children’s hospital in Glasgow. When they started dating, he knew he’d met his match in the self-assured, dark-haired beauty. Within months they were engaged, and on April 23, 1957, they were married.

Orthopaedic surgery is “like carpentry on the human body,” says son-in-law and physician Jim Stone, and Charlie “could clearly visualize what he wanted to do in three dimensions.” (He was also a proficient woodworker, later building a cottage on Ontario’s Little Cranberry Lake.) In addition to skill, he had an absence of ego—a rare quality among surgeons. While doing an orthopaedic fellowship at Harvard, where he trained in the early ’60s, he made an impression on doctors he met from Queen’s University, who urged the administration to recruit him. In 1965, the family, which had grown to include three daughters (Pamela, Alison and Valerie), moved to Kingston, Ont.

Charlie’s infectious enthusiasm endeared him to his colleagues at Queen’s. He was appointed head of orthopaedic surgery, and inspired younger doctors to pursue the specialty. Charlie was known for his “undying optimism,” says David Pichora, CEO of Kingston’s Hotel Dieu Hospital; when it came to improving a patient’s mobility, “it was a never-say-die thing.” His positivity fit well with orthopaedics: he took great pride in joint replacement, which, as he and John Rudan, current head of surgery at Queen’s, sometimes joked, was “God’s work—making the lame people walk again.”

Naturally athletic, Charlie tried new sports with gusto. Janet introduced him to skiing, and he was soon hooked. They taught the girls to ski, and took them to Vermont’s Jay Peak and Bic National Park in the Gaspé. An affectionate father, he was also a “great listener,” who could always be counted on for advice, says Pam. About 20 years ago, the family, which eventually included eight grandkids, began renting a house in Martha’s Vineyard every July. They played charades, and lingered over meals, which, says Pam, “Dad loved to plan.”

A perennial inventor, Charlie thought “outside the box,” says David. After establishing the Human Mobility Research Centre, he set about developing a new elbow replacement. By allowing for “rotation of the elbow as well as flexion and extension,” says Pam, who also became a physician, the Sorbie Questor joint drastically improved upon what was previously available. Charlie was also instrumental in getting barriers installed on the once treacherous stretch of highway between Belleville, Ont., and Gananoque, says Jim, ultimately convincing government that “these horrific accidents could be prevented.”

Charlie, who penned a column for Orthopedics, a monthly U.S. journal, became well-known in the community. As one-time president of the International Society of Orthopaedics and Traumatology (SICOT), among other organizations, he spoke at conferences around the world. An expert raconteur who “always knew the right things to say,” says John, “he would have been a fine ambassador.” His basement was crammed with letters from the people he met. Says Jim, “People just wanted to keep in touch with Charlie Sorbie forever.”

Though he stopped performing surgery in his early 70s, Charlie held clinics three times a week, and travelled the globe, teaching doctors to put in his elbow joint. “Healthy as anything,” says Pam, he “wouldn’t admit to being a senior citizen.” At a recent conference in New Orleans, SICOT president Cody Bünger says the pair “literally trotted around the very long corridors.” This spring, Charlie and Janet went on a ski trip out west with friends—an annual tradition. On March 29, Charlie was skiing at Big White, in Kelowna, B.C., when he collided with a snowboarder. He was rushed to hospital, but doctors were unable to save him. Charlie Sorbie was 78.

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