IWK excerpt 2: Dorothy Killam's new hospital

 “Why should I say yes to this?”

“Such a handsome man…” she said. Bill Cochrane couldn’t help but agree. Even if he had disagreed, which he didn’t, he probably would have agreed anyway. The man being referred to, after all, was Izaak Walton Killam, or at least a full-length portrait of the late financier, and the woman admiring his image was his wife Dorothy.

Cochrane, John Plow and Les Single, a partner with Duffus, Romans, Kundzins, Rounsefell, the Halifax architecture firm the Board had hired to design its new hospital, had come to Killam’s luxurious New York apartment at 120 East End Avenue on this American Thanksgiving Day to meet face-to-face with Dorothy Killam. Their goal: to convince this childless widow the memorial she really wanted to build for her late husband (a man who had said he didn’t want buildings built in his honour) was a children’s hospital in a part of Nova Scotia where he’d spent little time and she had passed almost none.

They figured they had about an hour.

It was, concedes, Single, “very nerve-wracking.”

Dorothy, whom Cochrane remembers as “extremely thin and pale” after hip surgery, met them at the door, seated in a wheelchair and attended by a butler who pushed her wherever she wanted to go. To Cochrane, Dorothy initially seemed a “somewhat formal, direct, businesslike lady who controlled the conversation to a large extent.” But the more she talked—and listened—the friendlier she seemed.

Midway through their pitch, however, she suddenly turned to Cochrane and asked him to follow her—instructing the butler to wheel her into another room. There, they had admired the portrait of her late husband. The painter, she said, had captured Izaak very well. Cochrane couldn’t help noticing Killam’s “rather cold, piercing eyes.”

Though he’d never heard of Dorothy before yesterday, Bill Cochrane certainly knew the outlines of Izaak Walton Killam’s life. Born in modest circumstances in Yarmouth in 1885, Killam had parlayed a banking apprenticeship and a stock-broking position at Royal Securities into a hugely successful career as a financier—buying, merging and building companies into massive profit-generating businesses. The other thing Cochrane knew about Killam was just how little anyone really knew about him.

“He never liked making speeches, never liked the limelight, even hated having his picture taken,” his biographer, Douglas How , would report many years later. “For years he would be known as the ‘mystery man of Canadian finance,’ an enigmatic figure, a man with reputation for being secretive, cold, tough, brilliant but primarily unknown.”

Killam’s only real obsession appeared to be making money. When he died in 1955, he left an estate valued at eighty three million dollars.

But as for the rest of his life? In 1933, Maclean’s magazine wrote that Killam “sometimes goes to a hockey game and now and then to the theatre, at both of which he displayed all the enthusiastic interest of a blind man in an art gallery.” He rarely smiled. In 1927, the Toronto Star reported at one raucous party where people were telling jokes, “a young lady seated next to the financier turned to see him sitting silent and unmoved. Half a dozen wisecracks received their applause and then, as one bright effort put the group in a state of collapse, she remarked gently, ‘Mr. Killam, if you don’t smile, I’m going to scream.’ Even then,” the reporter wrote, “he didn’t smile.”

All of which made his choice of a bride a tantalizing, gossip-worthy puzzle. Or perhaps not. In later years, Dorothy would tell people she had decided, on the very night she was introduced to a “tall man with the eyes of an owl” at a party in Montreal in 1921 that she would marry him. They were wed a year later when Dorothy was just twenty two and her husband nearly thirty seven.

Dorothy Brooks Johnson was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1899. Growing up in privileged circumstances, Dorothy became extremely competitive, an Olympic-calibre “crack swimmer” who strived to be the best at anything she tried. She hired experts to help her with her tennis game, and read books and took lessons to play bridge better. When she took up golf, Izaak Killam promised her one hundred dollars if she broke one hundred for eighteen holes in her first season. She did—“by hounding professionals to correct her faults.”

If Dorothy and her husband shared that perfectionist’s obsession, they were opposites in most other respects. Noted Doug How: “She was an extrovert, gregarious and full of fun; she loved parties, social life, liked being with famous and interesting people, especially men… Together they formed a patrician balance between introvert and extrovert.”

Killam happily indulged Dorothy’s desires to live, as one observer put it, “a fairytale life with herself as the princess,” spending a million dollars a year “on houses, on retinues of servants, on travel, on clothes, on entertainment, on fishing, on jewelry.”

Servants? Anne Byers, the wife of the man who would become Dorothy’s lawyer and chief advisor, recalled the first dinner party she attended at the Killam home in Montreal. “At the door, there were three different people who helped me off with my coat. The butler took one sleeve, the sub-butler another, and the maid took my scarf.”

Dorothy collected expensive jewelry. Her baubles and trinkets, explained one prominent jeweler, constituted “one of the finest private collections in the world.” Izaak bought them for her without complaint.

After her husband’s business interests took them more frequently to New York during the 1940s, Dorothy became obsessed with the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team. Izaak encouraged her to buy the team.

In addition to their comfortable, rambling old house in Montreal, the Killams owned two other equally luxurious homes in Nassau, one next door to where the Duke and Duchess of Windsor lived for a time, and the other on an island a mile away. “Guests,” reported How, “might lunch at one, have dinner at the other.”

But Dorothy was far more than a glamorous appendage to her taciturn husband. Killam respected “his wife’s judgments and opinions, especially those concerning people,” How noted. “Night after night in the library of their Montreal home, he would spread out his papers and ‘think out loud’ about his problems. Mrs. Killam would listen and respond to an occasional question, or sometimes ask a question of her own. He was schooling her for a future when he wouldn’t be around, when she would have control of the empire he had built and the millions he had made… He once told someone she had the best business brain of any woman he ever met.”

“He started by teaching me the ABCs of finance,” Dorothy explained, “and, by the time he died, I had the XYZs.”

While she continued, and even expanded upon the many self-indulgences she’d enjoyed during Killam’s lifetime—she bought Villa Leopolda, a stunning twenty-five-acre estate on the French Riviera, for which she paid three-million dollars. The villa, with its spectacular view of the Mediterranean and Cap Ferrat, was owned at one point by King Leopold of Belgium, who kept his mistress there, and Gianni and Mariella Agnelli of Fiat fame, who helped make it, in the words of New York gossip columnist Suzy Knickerbocker, “the most breathtaking, lavish, most publicized villa in the south of France.” Dorothy enjoyed summers at the villa, winters at her mansions in the Bahamas, springs in her apartment New York and autumns in the family homestead in Montreal.

Dorothy Killam also turned out to be a very astute businesswoman. Deciding she was “not going to be pushed around” following her husband’s death, Dorothy hired her own lawyer to look out for her interests. But she looked out for her own interests too. Having “studied all the angles,” she soon decided—against conventional wisdom and expert advice—to sell off most of the assets her husband had accumulated. She sold at a good time, made a lot of money—thirty-five-million dollars alone from his shares in Mersey Paper—and invested the bulk in short-term bonds that not only provided her with all the income she could spend but also continued to grow in value.

In 1960, The Ladies Home Journal described her as a “dainty, dark-haired, quick-humoured woman who entertains modestly and dresses with quiet elegance,” but was also one of the richest women in the world. The magazine estimated her net worth at two-hundred-and-seventy-five-million dollars, making her a “runner-up for the richest woman in the world sweepstakes.”

The question, of course, was what she should do with all that money when she died. There were no children to whom she could pass it on. But there were plenty of suitors. She was almost literally under siege from people who wanted a multimillion dollar contribution to this or that worthy cause. Many were people promoting the same causes her husband had rejected during his lifetime. No wonder she built walls of lawyers to screen out most of them. Which, Bill Cochrane understood, made this morning’s personal audience in her New York apartment so significant.

Though Izaak Walton Killam was something of a tightwad, he did, at one point, prepare a will stipulating that if his wife died first, the proceeds of his estate should be given to charity. But he never got around to deciding to which charities. In the end, he’d told Dorothy, he was “too sick and tired” to bother, and that if she survived him, she’d have to figure it out for herself.

But he did offer her advice. He wanted the money to remain in Canada, he told her, with the emphasis on projects in his native Nova Scotia. And he wanted his money to help advance developments in the fields of medicine, science and engineering. There were also ways—as Dorothy explained to Bill Cochrane while they stood together this morning admiring the portrait of her late husband—Killam didn’t want his money spent. Most notably, he didn’t want his estate squandered on contributing to charitable capital campaigns such as… well, such as the one Cochrane and his group were proposing.

“Why should I say ‘yes’ to this?” she demanded.

Cochrane was nonplussed. “Times have changed in the ten years since your husband’s death,” he stammered, desperately trying to explain his way out of the box she had created for him. “Perhaps his attitude would have altered,” he continued hopefully. “Given that this very worthy project is needed by the children in the Atlantic provinces, he may well have changed his mind.”

Dorothy didn’t respond directly, and the conversation continued until, at last, she invited them to stay for lunch.

Over lunch, she pressed for more information. Would there be an orthopedic ward for children in the new hospital, she wanted to know? Yes, there would, Cochrane answered. At which point Dorothy told them how impressed she’d been with the orthopedics department at the New York Medical Centre where she’d had her hip surgery. Did they want to see the facility? Cochrane indicated they’d be keen to see it at some point, never imagining Dorothy would immediately telephone the hospital’s administrators to tell them she had friends visiting from Nova Scotia who would like to see their children’s orthopedic ward, and how was three o’clock?

Despite the fact it was American Thanksgiving Day, “a large line of people, including the president of the centre, the head nurses and orthopedic doctors, as well as residents and other staff” were there to greet them—or at least her. When Cochrane apologized for having dragged them away from their Thanksgiving dinners, the head of orthopedics quietly explained that “Mrs. Killam had been very kind in the past and would probably continue to be supportive in the future.”

Invited to return to Killam’s apartment for what turned out to be a “wonderful meal,” Dorothy Killam continued to question Cochrane about the proposed hospital. “Will you have good people at this hospital, scientists and physicians, to provide the highest quality service?” Yes, he said. In fact, he had recently encouraged some of his current bright young doctors to go away to Harvard and Cleveland for further training so they could return better teachers and researchers. Oh yes, Dorothy responded. She understood an anonymous donor had provided funds to underwrite just such training. That was true, Cochrane allowed, but, unfortunately, the fund was only available to those training in Canada.

As soon as she heard that, Dorothy turned to John Plow. “There’s no stipulation that people should have to take their training in Canada,” she told him. “I want you to call Donald McInnes (then the chair of Dalhousie University’s Board of Governors) and make sure that’s changed so they can go wherever they want.”

The anonymous donor, Cochrane thought to himself, was no longer quite so anonymous.

Though they left that night with no commitments—other than a modest-for-Killam seventy-five-thousand-dollar pledge toward the capital campaign and the promise Dorothy would consider a “more substantial gift” at some point in the future—Cochrane was now optimistic Dorothy Killam would turn out to be the “sugar momma” they’d been looking for.


Weeks later, Dorothy announced she had not only decided to donate three-million dollars toward construction of a modern children’s hospital and research facility but also that she would be moving her own official residence from Montreal to Halifax, in part so she could take a more direct hand in planning a fitting memorial to her late husband. Before the year ended, she had put the for-sale sign on the Montreal home she and Izaak bought forty-three years earlier and signed a lease for a large new penthouse apartment on Spring Garden Road, a few blocks from the hospital.

When she arrived in Halifax in May 1965 for a two-week visit, her apartment still wasn’t ready, so she rented the top two floors of the city’s finest hotel, the Nova Scotian, including the suite used by visiting royalty, as headquarters for her, her lawyer and her army of servants and helpers.

By that point, Dorothy was already deeply enmeshed in the details—large and small—of the project. She’d flown John Plow, Arthur Peckham, a Toronto-based hospital consultant, and Andris Kundzins, the Halifax-based lead architect, to her winter mansion in the Bahamas for consultations. These were, in truth, less consultations than opportunities for Dorothy to tell the men what she had in mind.

Soon after she landed in Halifax, a special Saturday morning board meeting was convened so the architects could show Dorothy their latest plans and the board could formalize arrangements for her gift. Bill Cochrane, who wasn’t on the board, was asked to greet her and introduce her but then leave as the detailed financial discussions began.

An hour later, he got an urgent call at home from the hospital’s general manager, telling him to get back to hospital immediately. It seemed Dorothy Killam wasn’t happy. In fact, she was angry. And she wanted to know where Bill Cochrane had disappeared to.

“Come and look at this,” she commanded as soon as he arrived, leading him to the model of the hospital, which the architects had so proudly unveiled. There are too many angles. The windows are too small. It’s facing the wrong way. Where are the pillars? What about the children’s playground on the roof? It was not, she told Cochrane and the now “rather solemn, quiet group of people” gathered in the hospital’s board room that morning, a fitting memorial for her husband. The architects had botched it. They should be fired. She’d bring in her own architects from New York to replace them and do the job properly…

Cochrane listened to her litany of complaints with alarm. Bringing in another set of architects now would only delay the already too-long-delayed project. He tried to convince her to give the Halifax firm a second chance.

At first, she was unmoved. Izaak Walton had always told her people should only get one chance to do a task right. “And you’re asking me to give a second chance to your architect?”

Cochrane tried again, assuring Dorothy that the architects could make—would make—whatever changes she wanted. He turned to Les Single, the architect’s project manager, who nodded in vigorous, hopeful acquiescence. Eventually, Dorothy relented. She’d see what they came up with, she said.

“Boys,” Single said to the assembled architects, “we need a new set of drawings.”

Another crisis averted. It would not be the last.


That same night, at around 10:30 p.m., Cochrane got a telephone call at home from Dorothy’s lawyer and chief adviser, Donald Byers. Mrs. Killam, he explained, would like to pick him up in a few minutes in her car and take him on a tour of the Halifax area so she could show him some of the architectural ideas she had in mind as well as to look at the potential sites for the new hospital.

At 10:30 at night? By now Cochrane knew better than to question Dorothy Killam’s occasional eccentricities. But he could still be surprised. As they drove down University Avenue past the proposed site of the hospital next to the existing Children’s, Dorothy noticed the old City Hospital located “somewhat” in front of where the new hospital might block the view from the street. “Buy it and tear it down,” she instructed Byers, who was along for the ride. As delicately as he could, Cochrane pointed out that the building was owned by the provincial government, which might not want to sell, and, besides, it wasn’t blocking “too much” of the view of the new hospital. Dorothy paid him no mind. A few minutes later, she noticed that the view of the new hospital might be similarly blocked from the opposite end by the Provincial Laboratory building. “Call [Premier] Bob Stanfield,” she said to Byers. “Find out if we can buy it and remove it.” Cochrane was about to interrupt when he felt a warning tap on the leg. It was Byers, hushing him. By the time he was dropped off at home at midnight, Dorothy had decided the old wooden Halifax City Home would have to go too.

Over the following week, Dorothy continued to meet the architects to make her vision clear. The main problem, as she saw it, was that the hospital entrance, as envisioned by the architects, was to be on South Street. Dorothy wanted the building to face University Avenue where it could become “the axis of an enlarged complex of buildings associated with Dalhousie University.” The problem, says Les Single, is that a hospital’s interior layout is created in relation to the positioning of its entrance. Changing where you entered the building meant rethinking everything inside. They, of course, agreed to rethink it all. Just as they “yes, ma’amed” when Dorothy said she wanted a far more appropriate and substantial memorial lobby to honour her husband. Their eagerness to adjust and accommodate became even greater after Dorothy told the board she was willing to increase her planned contribution to the new hospital to five-million dollars.

Dorothy didn’t get everything she wanted. She loved the look of Greek and Corinthian columns, for example, and thought they should be part of the hospital’s dramatic entryway. Remembers Single: “We had to find a nice way of saying, ‘That’s not on,’ that it would make it look like a museum when what we needed was something that would be in keeping with children.” Dorothy relented on that, but the architects did eventually redesign the hospital façade to incorporate an unusual arched window design Dorothy wanted copied from her villa. (Dorothy flew both Aris Kundzins, the chief architect, and Arthur Peckham, the hospital consultant, to France so she could show them “some of the architectural features of her villa she wanted built into the new Children’s Hospital.” And then proceeded to make even more changes. “She even made changes to her changes,” Kundzins later marveled.)

During the many back-and-forth discussions over what the new hospital should look like, Dorothy would sometimes muse that perhaps a hospital really wasn’t the right project for her. “The committee got very nervous,” admits Single. “The money was still on a string.”

Which may explain why the architects’ operating mantra became, “If she wants it, she gets it.” At one point, Dorothy suggested putting a swimming pool on the roof of the hospital for the nurses. The architects dutifully went away, designed a rooftop pool and had a model made to show her. When they unveiled the model, Dorothy’s instant and appalled response was: “What’s that doing there?” The pool quietly disappeared from future drawings.

But Dorothy did more than hector the architects during her Halifax visit that spring. She also began settling into the city she planned to call home. In less than two weeks, she had joined the First Baptist Church and became a member of two social clubs.

Following a black-tie dinner with local luminaries at the home of Board President Kathleen Rowan-Legg on the night before she returned to New York, Dorothy asked Cochrane to sit beside her on the couch. She told him how pleased she’d been with the warmth and friendliness of the people she’d met in Halifax and that “she very much looked forward to living in the city when she came back from her home in southern France.”

Adds Cochrane: “She remarked to me that, on her return, she and I would get together to see what else was required in the way of support for scientists, staff and equipment to ensure the hospital would be first-class.”

It was not to be. Her May visit would turn out to have been Dorothy Killam’s last visit to the province in her lifetime.


The news was as shockingly unexpected as it was disconcerting. Dorothy Killam was dead.

She’d arrived at La Leopolda in June. At first, she continued to entertain her guests but, by the middle of July, she was in such great pain she couldn’t get out of bed. “Doctors were called in and hovered over her,” Douglas How writes. Though she was “very weak from internal bleeding,” she continued to negotiate—by wire and by phone—with the president of Dalhousie University, Henry Hicks, about her latest scheme to create a second memorial to her husband on the Dalhousie campus.

“Late on the afternoon of July 26, she said she’d like to leave her bed and have tea on the terrace overlooking the sea. Instead, she fell back to sleep. Later, the internal bleeding recommenced and, at about 1:30 on the morning of July 27, she died.” She was sixty five.

What now?


The answer was not long in coming. Having spent years considering how to order her estate and continuing to tinker at its edges almost literally up until the day of her death, Dorothy’s will “was detailed in its complexity, precise in its instructions, even historic in its implications. It was also flexible enough to be workable.”

Its gifts, as her Halifax lawyer, Donald McInnes, blandly understated it, were “princely.” Her largest bequest—to Dalhousie University—totaled thirty-million dollars and was to be used ”to help in the building of Canada’s future by encouraging advanced study.” She donated another sixteen-million to the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary, and fifteen-million more to the Canada Council. Her goal: to help build Canada’s future by encouraging advanced study.”

As for the Halifax Children’s Hospital? Dorothy’s will provided not the original three-million dollars she had pledged just over six months before, nor even the five million she talked about in May but an incredible eight-million dollars, enough, in the words of Richard Goldbloom, Cochrane’s successor as Physician in Chief, to create “a total revolution.” Dorothy’s donation enabled the new hospital to fulfill Bill Cochrane’s goal of becoming “one of the places to study children’s diseases, launched research in a variety of fields [and] attracted budding doctors from various parts of Canada and elsewhere.”


Ironically, Bill Cochrane wouldn’t be around to see his dream come to fruition. “I’d gotten very interested in medical education,” he explains simply. In 1967, he got a call from the Academic Vice President at the University of Calgary offering him the opportunity to build a brand new medical school at the university. At the time, there was no actual building in Calgary and not a single faculty member had been hired. “What an opportunity!” he says now.

Despite that, leaving Halifax wasn’t easy. He’d spent close to a decade putting all the pieces in place. He’d begun the process of transforming the Children’s Hospital into a more research-oriented institution, and, in the process, made it more regional. And, of course, he’d been instrumental in convincing Dorothy Killam to provide funds to allow the hospital to reach the next level.

“It was very, very difficult,” he says now. “I had no reason to ‘go from’ Halifax, but I had a new opportunity I wanted to ‘go to.’”

In July 1967, Cochrane left the Halifax and the Children’s Hospital to take up his new position as Dean of the University of Calgary Medical School.

By then, contractors had already begun to break ground for the new Izaak Walton Killam Hospital for Children! But it would be nearly three more years before the hospital would welcome its first patient.


To buy
Published: October 2009
Nimbus Publishing
Paperback • 212 pages
7 x 9 inches