Neuroscientist, mentor, humanist, husband, father. Born Feb. 20, 1925, in Daugavpils, Latvia, died March 19, 2012, in Saskatoon of complications due to stroke, aged 87.
Sergey Fedoroff witnessed the dawn of the field of tissue culture and mentored two generations of the world’s top neuroscientists.
His research was visionary and influential. When textbooks stated nerve cells couldn’t regenerate, he proved they could be both grown and studied. He opened new research avenues for treating neurological diseases. He lectured in four languages.
When Sergey had his first stroke, he used his symptoms to teach medical students.
He also persuaded his doctor to try a medication he thought should work on nervous tissue regeneration. As luck would have it, he recovered completely. Sadly, he was not so lucky after his second stroke.
Sergey always described his life as “very lucky.” He was born between the two world wars. His father, Pavils Feodorov, was assistant surgeon in the court of Czar Nicolas II. During the Russian revolution, Pavils escaped to Latvia where he re-established his medical practice and married Nina Birukova. Sergey was their only child.
Sergey’s love for hosting vodka toasted dinner parties with academic luminaries was engendered by his parents, who included him at their elegant events. One dinner guest who encouraged Sergey’s love of science was Nobel Prize winner Ivan Pavlov.
When Sergey was 14, Latvia was invaded first by the Soviet and then the German army. He became a displaced soldier separated from his family and picked up by British forces in Germany.
The Allies held him in a Belgian prisoner-of-war camp until 1947, when his parents engineered his release. His father had befriended a Doukhobor who planned to join a Russian community in Blaine Lake, Sask., and spoke of a Canadian program that invited men to immigrate as farm helpers.
Sergey packed his microscope and sailed across the Atlantic. He took the microscope to the town doctor’s office and offered to do lab tests. The doctor was impressed and suggested he apply to work at the University of Saskatchewan.
Sergey decided to write to Dr. Altschul, head of the anatomy department, hoping a person with a name like that might understand his background. He did.
Dr. Altschul hired him as assistant to the animal caretaker. The job introduced him to the histology lab instructor, Elaine Martin, whom he married and had four children with: but not before the Canadian government threatened to deport him for breaking his agreement to work on a farm.
The university intervened and the decision was reversed. Sergey not only could stay, but was able to sponsor his parents. His father became Blaine Lake’s Russian-speaking doctor.
Sergey was promoted through the anatomy department, becoming chairman from 1964 to 1987.
He lived an extraordinary life by any measure, not because of “luck” but because of who he was and his indomitable ability to turn adversity to advantage.