David Bruce McEwan, M.D., was born in Manitoba, Canada in 1946, and raised in Henrietta, a suburb of Rochester, New York. At the age of eight, he resolved to become a doctor. Five years later, he read about Father Damien, a 19th-century Catholic priest who devoted his life to caring for people with Hansen’s disease (more commonly known as leprosy) on the Hawaiian island of Molokai. Deeply moved by Father Damien’s example, David dreamt of one day devoting his own time and abilities to helping people at the margins of society.
After graduating from medical school at the University of Manitoba in 1972, David set off to hitchhike around the world. But as soon as his feet touched the sand in Hawaii, he knew it would one day be his home. In 1977, David moved to Hawaii and opened up his family medicine practice. In 1981, while attending a conference hosted by Bay Area Physicians for Human Rights, David got his first glimpse of what would become the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Returning to Hawaii, David began spearheading efforts to get ahead of the disease. In 1982, he co-founded the Life Foundation to stem the spread of HIV/AIDS, and to assist and comfort those already infected with HIV.
Those who envision Hawaii as a conflict-free paradise have never met the state’s religious and political conservatives – and they soon came after David and the Life Foundation. David was accused of profiteering, and even having sex with his patients. Fortunately, Hawaii is at root a progressive place – and David is both mild-mannered guy and absolutely unafraid to fight for what he believes in. Today, the Life Foundation is Hawaii’s oldest and largest AIDS service organization.
Beyond his work with the Life Foundation, David has been involved with many other LGBTQ affiliated organizations and projects, including the Hawai’i LGBT Legacy Foundation, Names Project Hawaii, and Marriage Project Hawaii. He also served on the boards of the Susan G. Komen Foundation and Hawaii Public Television. In 1991, he was awarded the ACLU’s Allan Saunders Award for Civil Liberties. Over David’s 38-year medical career, Honolulu magazine named him multiple times as one of Hawaii’s best doctors.
OUTWORDS traveled to Honolulu in January 2018 to interview David at the Hawai’i LGBT Legacy Foundation (another organization where he serves on the board). In person, David is so accommodating, it’s hard to imagine him ever raising his voice or getting really mad at anything. But his role model, Father Damien, probably didn’t yell much either. He just served those he was sent to serve – and in doing so, made his corner of the world a much safer, kinder place to live.