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Dr. Frank Gunston, A Manitoba Pioneer in Knee Replacement

Dr. Frank Gunston from Flin Flon, Manitoba, has been credited with creating the modern knee replacement that remains one of the most used and successful surgeries in the world. His colleagues described him as a brilliant and humble man.  He studied engineering and then worked under Sir John Charnley in the UK, who designed and implanted the first successful modern hip replacement. 

Dr. Gunston earned his engineering degree from the University of Manitoba in 1957, Gunston returned as an engineer to Hudson Bay Mining and Smelting in Flin Flon. The company sent him to England to work on transistors in telephone systems, which were an emerging technology at the time. There, he became fascinated by the transistor’s role in the pacemaker — another new technology. “I was frustrated because I could work on the pacemakers, but not on the patients,” he told the Brandon Sun in a 1994 interview.  

He returned to Winnipeg, studied medicine and became a physician. In 1963, he returned to England to work with Sir John Charnley in Lancashire — helping Charnley develop a hip prosthesis. Gunston noticed patients with newly replaced hips were often still restricted by their arthritic knees, which launched his work to develop a knee replacement. His solution combined plastic and metallic elements in tracks, attached to the top of the shinbone with a matching set of metal inserts fastened to the thighbone, allowing the joint to work together by moving along a runner.

Gunston’s knee was eventually implanted in 27 patients before he returned to Winnipeg. He published his work in a 1971 research paper, a significant and generous decision. He then returned to Canada and designed the polycentric knee, the first successful total knee design. He was a humble man and did not care for recognition or fame. While Dr. Gunston could have patented his work, which would have paved the way for commercial development and use, he made it available to anyone who needed it.  

I was not particularly interested in the commercial exploitation,” he said.

Dr. Gunston moved from the University of Manitoba to Brandon in 1982 and retired in 2000 after spending the later years of his career practicing in orthopaedics and joint replacement at Brandon General Hospital. In later years, he continued to try to use his total knee by manufacturing it in his garage. He was eventually recognized for his tremendous contributions. He passed away in 2016, leaving a tremendous legacy.  

Gunston, who also developed several other human joint replacements and was the only Manitoban awarded the Manning Award for Canadian Inventors in 1989 for his knee prosthesis. Gunston was named Distinguished Surgeon by the Canadian Orthopaedic Association in 1994, the Order of Canada in 1997 and the Manitoba Medical Association Scholastic Award in 1998.