Gordon Herd always wanted to learn to fly.
So when he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1942, he knew he could pursue his desire to be a pilot and to serve his country. What he didn't know was he would continue to 'serve' for the rest of his life.
Herd, 91, is one of the 3,983 healthy young men who, shortly after the end of the Second World War, agreed to be part of a longitudinal cardiovascular disease study created by a Winnipeg doctor. Decades later, the study began looking at successful aging as well.
That doctor was Francis Mathewson. The study, officially known as the Manitoba Follow-Up Study, was founded in 1948, but it took root a few years earlier.
Mathewson, a cardiologist, served in the Canadian Army from 1934 to 1940. From 1940 to 1945, he was the RCAF’s director of medical services and responsible for the physical examination of more than 7,000 air force recruits.
Herd said he joined the study three years after he was discharged.
"I got my EKG done, and I’ve been a member ever since. Every two years, I received a letter to go get a physical done... the first EKG was to get a commercial pilot’s licence so I could instruct."
Robert Tate, the study’s current director, said study members such as Herd wouldn’t have known it, but they became part of it before the end of the Second World War.
Tate said the physical examinations done on 7,000 men who applied during the war to join the RCAF were the foundation of the study.
He said the measurements taken at the time included height, weight, blood pressure, history of illness and an electrocardiogram taken while at rest.
Tate said when the war ended, Mathewson and other doctors thought it would be a shame if all the information that had been collected was tossed out.
With the co-operation of the military, the information was stored at the University of Manitoba’s medical school, and more information was collected through the decades.
"It is called the Manitoba Follow-Up Study not because Manitobans were in the study, but because it was housed at the University of Manitoba’s medical school," Tate said.
"The men lived everywhere. It has turned out to be a very remarkable study."
Tate said of the 3,983 men who were part of the study, about 2,500 continued with aviation after the war, while 1,400 left the field.
"They are from all stratums of the population," he said.
"They are used car salesmen, pilots. Some went home to the farm, others to the city. They are heads of companies, (in) the Senate. Ten per cent or more moved outside Canada."
Many of the study’s participants have died, but 259 are still part of it.
Herd is one of them.
Born in Brampton, Ont., he moved to Drumheller, Alta., when he was about a year old. While living there, he applied to join the RCAF during the Second World War. He trained at bases across the country, but the war ended before he served overseas.
After his discharge, he headed to Vancouver, intending to attend university, but Mother Nature stepped in to change that.
"It started to rain, and rain didn’t sit well with a Prairie boy," he joked.
After suffering through 28 wet days, Herd and a friend travelled to California, then headed east to Las Vegas before returning to Alberta.
He was back home tackling weeds in the lawn when a man leaned over the fence and asked, "What are you doing?"
"I said I’m doing weeding, but he said, ‘No, what are you doing? I need someone to replace my shipping person with a paint company.’
"Forty-seven-and-a-half years later, I retired."
Herd was the second youngest of four in his family — he had three sisters.
He got married in 1950, and his two daughters and son were born in the next decade. He lived in Edmonton for 20 years, Regina for three years, and has lived in Winnipeg since 1969.
Herd said he continued flying until the late 1950s, but then with his job, his family and building a house, he was so busy he finally gave up his wings.
He had already been part of the study for more than a decade. At first, Tate said, the study sent letters to participants every five years.
"They were still young, healthy men," he said. "If they were pilots, we received more because they had more frequent physical exams to continue flying.
"Then in the mid-1960s, they increased it to every three years. By the late 1970s, they still had exams every three years, but every year we sent out a questionnaire."
Tate said the study never used second-hand information when it came to medical conditions. They would ask the participant to sign a permission letter allowing them to get records from their physician and the hospital.
During an interview with Herd, Tate was there to not only speak about the project but also to show the study member — for the first time — the medical file that had been compiled on him during nearly seven decades.
"Today, there are 259 men alive of the original 3,983," he said. "There is probably only half a dozen, maybe 10, still in Manitoba.
"The average age is 94 — so you’re one of the younger guys, Gord. You’ve been part of this study for 68 years."
"It’s nice to be one of the younger ones in something," Herd joked back.
Contact with the remaining men is now four times a year. The youngest participant is 86.
"In the spring, we send a very detailed questionnaire about healthy and successful aging. In the fall, we send a one-page medical questionnaire. At Christmas, we send a survey on nutrition, and then we send a Christmas card.
"As the study members aged, it became important to get more information."
Pulling out Herd’s file from a large brown manila envelope, Tate said that on Nov. 14, 1942, the air recruit weighed 129 pounds and was 18. Herd had his first EKG after the war in 1946, and by then he had logged more than 1,000 flying hours. He said the file showed Herd had a stroke when he was 79, was diagnosed with angina in 2004 and his prostate was cancerous when it was checked when he was 67.
"Life was pretty good in their 20s, 30s and 40s, but when in their 50s and 60s, rates of heart disease went up," Tate said.
"If you made it through that to your 60s and 70s, many had cancer. If you made it to 85 and 90, you could have dementia. And if you made it through all that, then we can sit in your living room and talk."
Tate said there are other interesting features of the study besides the study itself. It has only had three directors, with Mathewson followed in 1988 by Dr. Ted Cuddy and then Tate in 2001.
In a unique twist, since the federal government stopped funding the study in 1983, the majority of the funding to keep it going until 2000 came from the participants themselves. Since 2000, the study has been funded by the federal government, Research Manitoba, the University of Manitoba and donations from study participants and families of past participants.
"When we asked them through the years whether they thought their participation in the study was valuable to their health, two-thirds said it has been. And when we asked them has the time spent on the study been useful to medical science, 90 per cent say yes."
Tate said the participation level of the study remained strong even as participants reached the end of their lives.
"It was the same reason a lot of these fellows went and joined the military. They believed it was the right thing to do," he said.
Tate said the followup study has been the largest study ever of the same group of men. He said 58 scientific research papers have been written from the information that was collected. Among the findings were that younger people with a sustained elevated blood pressure were at a greater risk of heart attacks later in life.
"We haven’t got a cure for some disease, but our research spans so many years of persons’ lives. We track the information of fellows from 23 to their 90s.
"The study focused on cardiovascular disease because we had all these men screened (at the time) to not have heart disease."
The followup study isn’t the only thing Mathewson is notable for creating. He also conceived and developed the Manitoba Museum. When he became president of the Museum Association, he created a board of directors with representatives from across the province and, with the help of the provincial government, the museum was created.
For all of Mathewson’s accomplishments, he was given various honours, including being inducted into the Order of Canada and the province’s Order of the Buffalo Hunt.
Even when he died in 1994, Mathewson helped the study he founded: he asked that donations in his memory be given to the followup study.
Richard Sellen is another member of the study.
Today, the 96-year-old lives in a senior’s residence in Oakbank, but seven decades ago he was piloting bombers in missions over Nazi Germany.
Sellen flew 39 missions before his superiors took him off flying missions and had him instruct pilots.
Sellen remembers one date well: April 20, 1944.
"I knew we were hit," Sellen said recently. "But I didn’t know with what.
"It was a clear night, and it was dark. There were no clouds. You could see the target indicators the pathfinders made for the target... but then the gunner said we’re losing gas out of our big tank and we’d be lucky if we don’t have to ditch into the North Sea or the English Channel."
Sellen said before they broke out of formation and began heading back to base, they dropped their bombs on the target at Cologne, Germany.
The plane made it back to England, where it was discovered a small incendiary bomb, dropped by another one of the bombers, pierced and became lodged in the fuel tank but failed to detonate.
Sellen still has that "souvenir" today as a reminder of how close he and his crew were to death.
While Sellen remembers that night, he doesn’t remember joining the followup study. But through the years, Sellen went to his doctor, and his results would be forwarded to the study.
Through the decades, those results showed Sellen was in good health.
"My heart would skip a beat now and then, but that’s only happened in the last 20 years or so," he said. "I haven’t had heart surgery. I haven’t had cancer.
"I’ve had one knee change. A year later, another knee change. And I don’t weigh more than I was in the war. I was between 160 and 165 pounds after the war, and now I’m down to the 140s. But I still don’t fit the jacket I had during the war.
"But overall I’ve been healthy."
Herd said letters from the followup study followed him no matter where he lived.
"I don’t know how they kept track of me, but they kept sending me a letter every two years," he said.
"Now they send me a form every year. They want more than just heart problems. They want to know how I’m aging."
Herd said he did have a stroke and a heart attack a few years ago. He also survived a diagnosis of prostate cancer and he has undergone three hip replacement surgeries.
He now uses a walker at times and he has a sit-down stairlift to go between the first and second floor of his house. He goes out every Wednesday to socialize and do activities with a group of seniors. A half-completed puzzle is on a table in his living room.
Herd said he was active through the years. He cross-country skied, he swam, even learning to scuba dive in 1974, and he played the occasional golf game.
A motor home sits on the driveway outside. He used to drive it south to Texas to escape the winter cold, but that hasn’t happened for a couple of years since his wife had to move to a nursing home.
"I have always been active," he said.
"I do gardening. I don’t do the lawn anymore/ I have a fellow do that and the snow removal.
"I can’t complain. I’ve had an excellent life. I’ve done everything I wanted to do."
But Herd said there is one bit of unfinished business in his life — the followup study itself.
"My intent is to keep being a part of this study," he said.
"I’m proud to be part of this study."