Historian and Ark columnist Hillary Don was noted physician
Hillary Francois Don, a former Tiburon Peninsula resident who authored four books on local history and was a weekly contributor to The Ark for more than three decades, died of natural causes Jan. 23 at his home in Rancho Mirage. He was 89.
He was the 2009 recipient of the Heritage Preservation Award, which is given out annually by the Tiburon Heritage and Arts Commission and recognizes outstanding achievement in preserving the Tiburon Peninsula’s history. Dr. Don was recognized not only for his books and other publications, but also for his role in helping to preserve a piece of Belvedere land as open space.
Born Nov. 16, 1932, in London, Dr. Don was the youngest of four children of Frank and Rosanna Donaghy, who shortened their last name when Dr. Don was a teen. His father, a journalist for the Daily Mail, told him the simpler name made things easier. During World War II, like many children in London, Dr. Don and his siblings were evacuated to the country and attended a number of elementary schools.
He went on to earn his undergraduate degree from Cambridge University and his medical degree from University College Hospital in London, where he met his wife, Joan, who was a student nurse. They were married April 7, 1960, in the seaside town of Hunstanton, England, and emigrated to Canada the following day.
Dr. Don had a successful career in anesthesia and critical-care medicine, with stints at Royal Victoria Hospital of McGill University in Montreal from 1960 to 1971 and at what is now Brigham and Women’s Hospital at Harvard University from 1971 to 1974. His family then moved west for his job at the University of California at San Francisco Medical Center.
He and his family settled in Tiburon for 13 years before relocating to Belvedere, where they lived until they moved to Rancho Mirage in 2016.
He published 79 medical books, book chapters and journal articles, gave nearly 100 invited presentations and was on the editorial boards of nine medical journals, including Anesthesia.
Dr. Don particularly loved teaching, Joan Don said. He worked hard to prepare his lectures, and the reward was that his classes were packed with students. Years after his retirement, he was still receiving notes from former students who thanked him for inspiring a passion for medicine and patient-centered care, his wife said.
He remained in his UCSF post until 1998, when he became an emeritus professor. He retired in 2002.
He indulged his love of research and writing with two post-retirement avocations.
From 1992 up until his death, he contributed the weekly “100 Years Ago” column to The Ark, compiling short newspaper items about the peninsula, Marin and beyond that had been published each week 100 years earlier in regional newspapers, primarily the Sausalito News.
Dr. Don’s history column signed off each week saying he’d hoped to publish the column for the week of his own 100th birthday.
“He was continually intrigued and amused by the idiosyncrasies of life in the past,” said his daughter, Ann Don Morrison of Boulder, Colo.
His other passion was writing books about local history.
His first was a booklet published in 1988, “Old St. Hilary’s: The First 100 Years from Mission Church to Historic Landmark.” The book “Life in Belvedere and Tiburon 1890-1900,” published in 2003, was a large volume that took 10 years to complete. “Across the Pacific Ocean with Paddle Steamship China,” published in 2013, was about the origins of the China Cabin landmark on Beach Road, and Dr. Don wrote again about the landmark in “China Cabin,” published in 2017. He was a contributing editor of “A Pictorial History of Belvedere,” coauthored by The Ark’s Beverly Bastian and Barbara Gnoss, published in 1990; he wrote the section on the old Belvedere golf course.
Several of Dr. Don’s books were published by the Belvedere-Tiburon Landmarks Society, which sold them in its office; he gave the organization the profits from the sales.
“The most memorable thing about working with Hillary is that both of us are into the minutiae of history and finding the absolute, correct answer,” said Tiburon Town Historian David Gotz, longtime archivist for the Landmarks Society. “He was a very detail-oriented historian.”
Dr. Don served on the board of the Landmarks Society from 1987 to 1991, doing a turn as president.
In 1996, the Dons and their neighbors, Gay and Wyman Harris, bought a vacant hillside property adjacent to their homes on Belvedere Island and donated it to the city, which dedicated it as Belvedere Centennial Park a few months later. The Hawthorne Lane steps border the park on one side. The previous owners had wanted to develop the land.
His passion for writing extended to his travel notebooks, which contained essays that recounted the amusing or unexpected events of his extensive travels with his wife. He called them, “Travels with Joanie.”
“He would laugh as he wrote and then laugh again when he read what he had written,” Don Morrison said. She described her father as “curious, playful and joyful.”
Don Morrison interviewed her father for a 2014 StoryCorps segment for National Public Radio; the independent nonprofit StoryCorps works to record and share the stories of Americans from diverse backgrounds. Don Morrison asked Dr. Don what his favorite activity was.
“Being with my wife,” he replied. “Doing anything with her is absolute fun. It’s magic. Wherever we go, and we’ve been many places on vacation throughout the world, they’ve always been wonderful but they’ve been wonderful in a very simple way … our life has been a sequence of little, wonderful things.”
Dr. Don and Joan each did two-year terms as president of the Belvedere Tennis Club at different points and later were named honorary life members.
In addition to Joan Don and Ann Don Morrison, Dr. Don is survived by two grandchildren, Christopher Morrison of Boise, Idaho; and Robbie Morrison of Sacramento; and three great-grandchildren, Charlie, Blake and Ryan.
A martini hour honoring Dr. Don will be held at a later date, “when it is relatively safe to gather again,” the family said. Donations may be made to the Belvedere-Tiburon Landmarks Society, 1550 Tiburon Blvd., Suite M, Belvedere, CA 94920 or at landmarkssociety.com.
Reach Tiburon reporter Deirdre McCrohan at 415-944-4634.