Dr. Thomas Dignan has served as a pioneer in the health of Aboriginal people for more than 30 years. He left high school at 16, following the death of his father, and worked as an office boy and stockroom clerk to support his mother and two sisters. At age 18, he entered the U.S. Marine Corps and during his service, he earned his high school equivalency. After his discharge, and a six-year stint in computer operations, he enrolled in St. Joseph’s School of Nursing. He graduated third in his class with an RN diploma and joined the Adolescent Unit at the Hamilton Psychiatric Hospital and later, the Outpost Nursing Station in Berens River, Manitoba as Nurse-in-Charge. In 1974, he enrolled at the University of Alberta to attain his Bachelor of Science of Nursing degree, spending his summers at outpost stations in northern Manitoba. With his new degree, Dr. Dignan returned to Hamilton, his birthplace, and served as Clinical Nursing Instructor at Mohawk College for two years.
Dr. Dignan entered the Faculty of Medicine at McMaster University and in 1981 became its oldest graduate and first ever graduate of First Nations ancestry. He began his professional career as Thunder Bay’s first emergency physician and later served the South Muskoka Hospital for nine years in emergency medicine and anesthesia. As a licensed pilot and fly-in physician, Dr. Dignan continues to serve the northern and western regions of Ontario and divides his time working as a primary care physician for Anishinawbe Muskiki Native Health Access Centre in Thunder Bay and as a medical officer for the First Nations and Inuit Health Branch of Health Canada. Drawing on his dual knowledge of Iroquois and western medicine, Dr. Dignan is now pursuing a Master’s degree in Public Health from Lakehead University. He is the first president of the Native Nurses’ Association and founding member of the Native Physicians’ Association. A recipient of the Queen’s Jubilee Medal, Dr. Dignan directs his energies toward improving the health of First Nations people, including a drive to make a national standard of chicken pox vaccination, and drawing on-reserve health issues into public focus. Dr. Dignan lives in Thunder Bay and Bracebridge in Ontario.