McMaster University

McMaster University

Faculty of
Health Sciences

'Accidental educator' remembered for contributions to teaching and scholarship

Published: March 29, 2011
Howard Barrows
Howard Barrows, a professor of medicine at McMaster from 1971 to 1980.

Howard Barrows, a McMaster architect of problem-based learning who pioneered the concept of using simulated patients to train medical students, has died.

A professor of medicine at McMaster from 1971 to 1980, Barrows created educational tools and learning methods that have defined modern medical training. His innovations included standardized patients and performance-based testing. His research encompassed the problem solving skills of physicians and problem-based learning (PBL) as a structured teaching/learning method.

"His pioneering work on PBL and simulated patients, as well as his mentoring of educational leaders, had a huge influence on McMaster and the international medical education community," said Susan Denburg, associate vice-president, academic, Faculty of Health Sciences.

The physician is remembered for his creativity and innovative ideas that spanned a career of nearly 50 years. His research and educational contributions continue to influence the training and education of students and health-care professionals around the world.

"He called himself an 'accidental educator'," said P. K. Rangachari, a professor emeritus of medicine who was working on a book with Barrows. "He drifted into education, but his contributions were tremendous. He invented the simulated patient program and consolidated the body of knowledge around problem-based learning."

Early in his career, Barrows was on faculty at the University of Southern California and the director of neuromedicine at the Los Angeles County Hospital. Following his time at McMaster, he joined the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine where he retired in 1999 as the chair of medical education. In his retirement, he returned to Hamilton.

Barrows was the recipient of many awards, including the first John P. Hubbard Award from the National Board of Medical Examiners in recognition of his contributions to evaluation in medical education. In 2005, he was inducted into the McMaster Faculty of Health Sciences’ Community of Distinction.

In 2010, the Howard Barrows Award was established to coincide with the 10-year anniversary of McMaster’s Bachelor of Health Sciences (Honours) Program. The award recognized exceptional teachers and was established to honour "eminent teacher, Dr. Howard Barrows, who is widely recognized as an architect of self-directed, problem-based learning."

A tribute to Barrows will be held at the second presentation of the award in October. The 2011 recipient is Hal White, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry and pioneer of PBL at the University of Delaware.

The Barrows family is planning a private memorial. In lieu of flowers, donations are requested in support of the Hamilton Health Sciences Foundation, Dr. Mark Tarnopolsky’s neuromuscular diseases research fund 1153.

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