Manitoba Historical Society
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Memorable Manitobans: Donald Willis Penner (1918-2004)

Medical researcher, municipal official.

Born at Rosthern, Saskatchewan on 8 June 1918, he attended the University of Manitoba where he organized the first blood bank in Western Canada. In 1942, he graduated with a degree in pathology. As an intern, he performed the first lab test to measure blood-alcohol levels in emergency patients. This led to a 45-year crusade against drinking and driving.

By 1944, he was Chief Pathologist at the Winnipeg General Hospital and Assistant Professor of Pathology at the University of Manitoba. He eventually rose to become Director of the Department of Pathology at the Health Sciences Centre. In the early 1950s, he was the first in Manitoba and one of the first in Canada, to set up screening tests for cervical cancer at no charge to women, an initiative believed to have cutting the mortality rate for the disease by 90%.

Following retirement, in 1998 he went to Nairobi, Kenya where he spent six years reviving the University of Nairobi’s non-functional Pathology Department, repeating successes against cervical cancer already demonstrated in Winnipeg.

Elected to the St. Vital School Board in 1954, he served for 29 years there, including a term as its Chair. He helped to found the Norberry Community Club.

In recognition of his community service, he received Canada’s Centennial Medal (1967), Citizen of the Year Award (1974), Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee Medal (1977), Distinguished Service Award from the Manitoba Medical Association, Order of the Buffalo Hunt (1989), President’s Award of the College of American Pathologists, Frederic Newton Gisborne Starr Award of Distinction (1995), and the Order of Canada (1998).

He died at Winnipeg on 26 March 2004. He is commemorated by Dr. D. W. Penner School in Winnipeg.

See also:

Historic Sites of Manitoba: Dr. D. W. Penner School (121 Hazelwood Crescent, Winnipeg)


“Rotary gives $2000 to help blood bank,” Winnipeg Free Press, 16 September 1942, page 11.

“Trustees and teachers air mixed views,” Winnipeg Free Press, 5 September 1958, page 16.

“Local ‘pap’ test program one of largest in the world,” Winnipeg Free Press Leisure Magazine, 15 July 1967, page 18.

“School-opening slated,” Winnipeg Free Press, 7 December 1967, page 5.

Canadian Medical Association Journal, volume 134, 1 January 1986, page 72.

Obituary, Canadian Medical Association Journal, 22 June 2004.

Obituary [Helen Elizabeth Penner], Winnipeg Free Press, 6 January 2004, page 19.

Obituary, Winnipeg Free Press, 28 March 2004.

“Pathologist devoted life to medicine and society,” Winnipeg Free Press, 2 April 2004, page A7.

This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough and Nathan Kramer.

Page revised: 7 May 2015

Memorable Manitobans

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