Lyle Thurston 1937 - 2008

Feature story - 31 March, 2008
Lyle Thurston, one of 12 crewmembers on the original Greenpeace campaign, died of pneumonia at the age of 70 in Victoria, BC, Canada, March 26, 2008. "Doc" Thurston - a medical doctor, patron of the arts, and lifetime environmental advocate - served as medic on the Phyllis Cormack in 1971, the first Greenpeace campaign, a protest against the US nuclear test in the Aleutian Islands.

Lyle Thurston

Thurston first met fellow Greenpeace founder Bob Hunter in 1969, when Hunter wrote a newspaper column about Thurston's free medical services to Vancouver youth who had overdosed on drugs. Thurston would set up a medical tent at outdoor rock concerts, staffed with nurses and doctors. He became known in the community, and people would bring drug overdose cases to his office or home at any time of night or day. He closed his medical practice for two months in 1971 to join Hunter and the others on the first Greenpeace campaign.

Thurston grew up in Yorkton, Saskatchewan, earned a medical degree at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, and began his practice at a clinic on a native Cree reservation. He learned sign language to communicate with deaf and mute children in the rural community. He had a life-long love for classical music and ballet, and was a generous patron of the classical arts.

Thurston, a serious environmental activist, also knew how to make protest fun. He became famous for hosting extraordinary parties, during which he would recruit volunteers for his public projects. He attracted many others to Greenpeace, including Davie Gibbons, Greenpeace's lawyer in the 1970s; Dr. Myron Macdonald, a medic on Greenpeace whale campaigns; and Bobbi Innes, who later married Bob Hunter and established the first public Greenpeace office. Hunter once said of Thurston, "He always made new recruits feel welcome, and knew how to make protest fun. Thurston knew how to lift people's spirits."

During the 1971 campaign, Thurston's exuberance led to unexpected good fortune. While taking wheelhouse watch with Bob Hunter one night, Thurston brought his tape deck and played Beethoven and the Moody Blues through the night. Inadvertently, Thurston set the tape recorder near the ship's compass, throwing the compass needle off. Throughout the night, with Thurston conducting the music, Hunter unknowingly steered the ship 90 miles off course. What seemed at first to be an embarrassing mistake turned auspicious because the US Coast guard lost track of the Greenpeace ship and had to scramble a C-130 Hercules aircraft to find it.

During the second Greenpeace campaign, to stop French nuclear testing in the South Pacific, Thurston again closed his medical practice and set up in Europe, where he led rallies in London, Paris, and Rome. He carried the Greenpeace flag into the Vatican and serendipitously met Pope Paul VI, who blessed the flag. He helped established the first Greenpeace group in London when he appeared on the BBC with local supporters in a 3-way radio link with Greenpeace Chairman Ben Metcalf in Vancouver and skipper David McTaggart in New Zealand.

On the first Greenpeace whale campaign, in 1975, Thurston flew to Winter Harbour to attend to a crewmember, who had experienced an emotional breakdown, but refused to leave the boat. Thurston recalled: "I laced a sandwich with stelazine (a tranquillizer), and lowered it into the hold, where Bob Hunter was attempting to coax him out. The patient refused the sandwich, so Hunter ate it and passed out." Thurston then went into the hold and, with his compassionate bedside manner, convinced the troubled crewman to accept a tranquilizer, and then accompanied him to the hospital.

Thurston was a co-founder of Greenpeace International in 1979, as he encouraged others to set aside the original legal structure and adopt a new international Board of Directors.

His friend of forty years, Dr. Myron Macdonald, recalls, "He streaked like a meteor through our lives and by God it was never dull. He gave me the gift of appreciation of classical music, opera, and the fine arts. Looking back, I realize that he was instrumental in putting together almost all of my closest friendships."

Thurston suffered a serious accident in 1980, when a bicyclist hit him as he crossed the street in front of his Vancouver office. He never fully recovered and closed his medical practice, but he continued offering free medical services to those in need and working occasionally with Greenpeace. He lived his life with a sense of duty to serve others, and with a sense of joy that roused others. He is survived by his mother and missed by his many friends and colleagues.