Muhammad “Max” Zahir. Physician. Author. Rhodes Scholar. Mentor. Born Nov. 27, 1936, in Ludhiana, India; died March 20, 2021, in Kamloops, of bone marrow cancer; aged 84.
Max never celebrated a birthday as a child. In India during the 1930s, it was not customary to issue a birth certificate and no one in the family took it upon themselves to make note of it otherwise. It was never an issue for Max, until his medical school application had a birth date requirement. Many visits to government offices eventually secured a declaration that would suffice. As the top high-school graduate in his year, this would be the only barrier he faced to attend the prestigious King Edward Medical University in Lahore, Pakistan, in 1953.
After graduating with a specialty in pathology, Max became a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University. His dissertation on wound healing earned him a Doctor of Philosophy, the respect of his supervising professors and a research post.
At Oxford, he also discovered Maureen Malcouronne, a ravishing, newly minted midwife at a New Year’s Eve party. They fell in love and married in 1964. A year later they welcomed the birth of their first child, Sara.
The family moved overseas where Max worked at the medical faculty at the University of Maryland. He did not enjoy the institutional pressure to “publish or perish.” When their son David arrived he searched for a hospital position and accepted an offer from Moncton Hospital in New Brunswick.
Max’s leadership and self-effacing demeanour was warmly welcomed by his hospital colleagues. The Moncton winters, however, did not offer a similar welcome. Before a move to milder climes occurred, his third child, Suzanna Kate was born. In 1974, Max moved his family to Kamloops, where he began 28 years of service to Royal Inland Hospital.
Max was busy at work but he prioritized family with no hesitation and let them pull him down unfamiliar and perhaps unwelcome avenues. Maureen would often remind her children that Zahir translates to “caution” in Hebrew. In nearly every other aspect of life, Max heeded his moniker’s warning. But in the early 1980s, David managed to talk his trepidatious father into buying a dirt bike so they could navigate the grasslands of B.C.’s interior. The father-son excursions became a regular weekend occurrence for a while. His family remains awestruck that Max succumbed to his son’s childhood yearning. (Later in life, the two would share an adventure exploring the remote Karakoram Highway that runs between Pakistan and China.)
Max made it a priority during retirement to chronicle the years when the Partition of India destroyed the early years of his life. Max was 11 in 1947 but he remembers it as a time of unrelenting bloodshed and violence. On a train escaping to Pakistan, Max witnessed the abduction of his sister. The family never saw her again. While it was heart-wrenching to write of this tumultuous episode in South-Asian history, Max persevered and in 2011 published his book 1947: A Memoir of Indian Independence.
Max adored his five grandchildren and saw nothing more fitting than sitting down with a textbook or two to help the older ones prepare for university entrance exams. He knew education held the key to the vastness of life. No book was too simple nor too complex to share. With his younger grandkids, he told them curious tidbits from whatever book he was reading. They were all awed by his ability to recall facts on any subject, even those topics deemed “totally boring.”
Until the very end, Max showed an unequivocal appreciation for the opportunities life so generously afforded him. His family said their final goodbyes as dawn greeted the first day of spring. When we held him for the last time, there was a modicum of comfort knowing that as he left us new life surrounded us.
Kate Zahir is Max’s daughter.
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