Adrienne Alison (BScAAM 8T1) is perhaps best known as the sculptor of the bronze and granite War of 1812 memorial on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.
The bronze sculpture depicts representations of the unnamed Canadians who defended the country from the American invasion. The figures include a Métis fighter, a woman bandaging the arm of a Voltigeur of Quebec (a soldier in a temporary military unit), a Royal Navy sailor, a First Nations warrior, a militiaman and a member of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment.
Adrienne said in a 2014 interview that she completed all seven, two-metre-tall figures in only eight months and that she wanted to create an iconic image that Canadians could recognize even if only seen in silhouette.
But long before her career creating public memorials, Adrienne was a medical artist who specialized in anaplastology.
“In 1978, when Adrienne first enrolled in Art as Applied to Medicine at the University of Toronto, she and her cohort would have completed prosthetic projects through the Hospital for Sick Children,” says Professor Emerita Margot Mackay (BScAAM 6T8).
Students also learned about prosthetics through the student exchange with the University of Michigan—Ann Arbor. Dennis Lee, an anaplastologist and faculty member at Ann Arbor, taught medical sculpture and prosthetics. He held several anaplastology workshops for students during exchanges that were hosted at the University of Toronto.
Upon graduation from Art as Applied to Medicine in 1981, Adrienne completed a prosthetics internship at Ann Arbor. In 1982, she returned to Toronto to work at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto.
“I started my career at Sunnybrook in 1988,” says Dr. Ralph Gilbert, Chief of the Department of Otolaryngology—Head & Neck Surgery for the University Health Network. “At that time, Adrienne was on staff at Sunnybrook as a maxillofacial prosthetist, an anaplastologist. We started a partnership along with Dr. Jim Anderson, a professor of maxillofacial prosthodontics, and we started the facial prosthetics program at Sunnybrook that remains to the present.”
A prosthetic ear created by Wendy Kates (BScBMC 9T5). Photo credit: Nicholas Woolridge
“Anaplastology is the art and science of sculpting restorative prosthetics to convincingly replace missing or malformed parts of the body, usually in a highly visible place like the face,” says Nicholas Woolridge (BScBMC 9T2), Director of the Master of Science in Biomedical Communications. “A child, for example, might be born with microtia, a condition in which the external ear is undeveloped, or a patient might have lost part of their face due to trauma or cancer.”
By the time a patient came to Adrienne, Gilbert says that patients would already have been through significant trauma. They may have experienced devastating injuries to the face that resulted in missing parts like an ear or critical facial structure. Cancer patients would have been through surgery and radiation to remove tumours that had spread to skeletal and facial tissue. The surgeries would have resulted in significant disfigurement.
“Imagine yourself suddenly faced with the possibility that when you look in the mirror, you have no eye, just a space where your eye used to be. You have no nose, just a space where your nose used to be,” says Gilbert. “For those patients, for just about anybody, it’s devastating. You don’t want to appear in public, go shopping, attend social events. You don’t want your family to see you. In fact, you don’t even want to look at yourself.”
He says that Adrienne’s work was critically important. She brought intense focus and an eye for detail to sculpting and creating prosthetics that patients would actually wear. “She was a remarkable artist in that space,” Gilbert says and her work allowed patients to continue their lives in public and private spaces. But what made Adrienne unique was her ability to connect with patients on an emotional level.
Adrienne could spend as much as 4 to 6 hours with a patient looking at their disfigurement and trying to understand their issues. “She had the ability to be empathetic about their suffering and that translated into her trying to communicate with patients and deliver the best result to them,” says Gilbert. “She was, in the current terminology, extremely patient-focused.”
Linda Wilson-Pauwels (BScAAM 8T6), Professor Emerita and former program Director (1986 to 2008), says it was Adrienne who inspired her to enrol in Art as Applied to Medicine.
"When I was a student at OCAD, my husband brought me a newspaper article about Adrienne’s important work at Sunnybrook Hospital. At that point in my life, I wanted to be just like Adrienne and make medical prosthetics. Adrienne inspired me to become a medical illustrator,” says Wilson-Pauwels.
Although Wilson-Pauwels did not specialize in medical prosthetics, throughout the 3-year curriculum she created numerous medical models including a series depicting the early folding of the embryo, which is still in use in the Faculty of Medicine’s Grant’s Museum at the University of Toronto.
In 1987, Wilson-Pauwels hired Adrienne to teach prosthetics.
Nicholas Woolridge was one of the students in the program who benefitted from Adrienne’s instruction. “She was demanding and had high expectations. She was very concerned with professionalism but she also had a good sense of humour,” he says.
Under Adrienne’s guidance, Woolridge sculpted a nose and says that it was the first time he had really seen that medical illustration could be a profession in which there was direct contact with patients.
Lianne Friesen (BScBMC 9T1) who worked at Sunnybrook with Adrienne for one summer remembers her for her devotion to her patients and her work, and calls her a perfectionist.
“Understandably, Adrienne demanded the same from anyone working with her so the work was intense and precise. She was a great teacher and she trusted you to work with patients. There was a balance of oversight and freedom. She wanted to see you grow in your abilities and independence in the work,” says Friesen.
Friesen also says that Adrienne was generous in unexpected ways. She recalls a time they travelled together by car to an anaplastology conference in Ann Arbor with Adrienne’s baby son sleeping in the back seat. She says Adrienne just folded her into her travel plans, which included having her stay with Adrienne’s family in Ann Arbor.
“I admired her greatly and feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to learn from and work with her,” Friesen says.
In 1992, Adrienne left her anaplastology practice at Sunnybrook in the care of Irene Healey (BScAAM 8T9) to immerse herself in education and the creation of classical sculptures and artistic exploration.
In November 2018, at the age of 64, Adrienne Allison passed away. She leaves behind her children Alicia and Callum Owen and her sister Karen Alison. Adrienne had a rich and varied career filled with meaning that resulted from her ability to forge connections: connections with students, connections with colleagues, and connections with patients. And of course, she connected Canadians to one another and to their shared history through her War of 1812 sculpture that stands on Parliament Hill.
A celebration of Adrienne's life was held June 8, 2019 at Wychwood Barns in Toronto.