John Blatherwick - Expert in Medals and Decorations

by John M. MacFarlane 2011

Commander John Blatherwick

Long before I worked in a maritime museum I was aware of Dr. John Blatherwick’s interest in medals and decorations. I owned his books on the subject and was fascinated by his desire to bring lists of recipient names to life. He used named examples to illustrate the nature of the people and their actions that merited to decoration. Blatherwick’s military career had started in 1961 while he was an Ottawa high school student as a Guardsman in the Governor General’s Footguards. This was followed by six years in the RCAF's University Reserve Training Program (URTP) which carried him through medical school and allowed him to become a Flying Officer in the RCAF Reserve.

Commander John Blatherwick

After qualifying as a doctor he had an offer to become a Medical Officer in the Royal Canadian Medical Corps in Calgary. By a twist of fate he ended up as the Officer-in-Command for seven months before moving to Vancouver. Once out on the coast he was appointed as the Principal Medical Officer at HMCS Discovery for the following 29 years. In 2000 he was appointed as the Senior Naval Medical Reserve Advisor before retiring. He thinks that his 29 years as P.M.O. is a record and retired as a Surgeon Commander (NR). He was Canada’s representative to the NATO Reserve Medical Officers’ Congress from 1989 to 1995. In 2005 he was appointed as the Honorary Colonel–in–Chief of 12(Vancouver) Field Ambulance Unit, a post he will hold until 2012.

While he was serving in the Air Force he purchased a couple of medals that had come up for sale – he particularly noticed some George Medals whose origins he researched. He was struck by the significance of what they represented. Some of his colleagues who were collectors asked him to purchase interesting items as he encountered them in the 1960s and 1970s. But it was the story behind the medals that captured his imagination and he began to collect the stories rather than the objects. He interviewed veterans and began to accumulate information that no one else possessed.

Sharing that information became the end result – he publishes a landmark guide to Canadian Medals and Decorations which is still in print. The book is still available from reputable book sellers and much in demand by enthusiasts. He has published 22 books in all - including a History of the Airlines of Canada.

Blatherwick is a well–known personality in Metro Vancouver from his landmark career in public health. He was the Chief Medical Officer of Health for Vancouver 1984–2007. He always appears fearless in public - and in his position he often needed that courage. British Columbia Premier Bill Vander Zalm publicly threatened to fire him – twice – over his advocacy for providing condoms and sex education in schools.

I was in contact with him when I worked in the Maritime Museum of British Columbia, when he was researching new publications. Later I actually worked directly with him on the prevention of West Nile Virus in the Greater Vancouver region. We were seriously at odds on several occasions. He always demanded the highest standards and accountability in his professional work and could be a fearsome watchdog over the public health interests of the region. I realized then that this was the same level of precision and thoroughness that he brought to his interests in Naval medals and decorations.

Some of his many other publications include:

  • - Royal Canadian Air Force Honours, Decorations, Medals, 1920–1968, (1991) FJB Air Publications.
  • - A History of Airlines in Canada (1989) Unitrade Press, ISBN 0919801668
  • - 1000 Brave Canadians: The Canadian Gallantry Awards, 1854–1989, (1991) Unitrade Press
  • - Canadian Orders, Decorations and Medals (Fourth Edition) Unitrade Press 1994
  • - Royal Canadian Navy – Honours, Decorations and Medal 1910–1968(FJB Air Publication 1992)
  • - CD ROM Courage And Service, Second World War Awards to Canadians (with Hugh Halliday). The information on this CD is a compilation of British and Canadian awards to Canadians including the full text of all citations, concentrating on the Second World War but with bonus databases which cover other important periods of the 20th century. In printed format the infomration would easily exceed 8,000 pages. ISBN 1-894581-22-9
Awards to the Canadian Navy

Blatherwick operates a very useful website Awards to the Royal Canadian Navy for marine historians, medal collectors and family genealogists.Even if you do not identify with any of these groups it is a fascinating collection of information and well worth a visit.The stories of service and heroism need wider appreciation by the public.

He has been decorated for his own service. John Blatherwick received the Order of Canada for his contributions to public health, his public service and his military service. He served as the Provincial Commissioner of the St. John’s Amulance Brigade and is a Commander of the Order of St. John. He is also a recipient of the Order of British Columbia for his contribution to the people of the Province.

To quote from this article please cite:

MacFarlane, John M. (2011) John Blatherwick - Expert in Medals and Decorations. 2012.

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