Pioneering neurologist and researcher, father, adventurer. Born Feb. 28, 1923, in Toronto, died June 15, 2012, in Toronto of kidney failure, aged 89.
In our house in Toronto in the late 1960s, the desk in my father’s study was a forest of Super-8 film strips. He was conducting the first Canadian study of L-Dopa, a revolutionary new drug for Parkinson’s disease. Every month or so, 83 patients would come to his office and repeat a series of exercises that he documented on film.
The images showed elderly people struggling to touch their wobbling fingers to their noses, or straining to hold their shaky hands flat in front of them. The film chronologies he assembled captured a gradual improvement that would ultimately document the effectiveness of the new drug.
Parkinson’s was just one of many areas Dr. Oscar Kofman explored in a career spanning more than 50 years. He was among the first group of five fully trained neurologists in Canada.
He entered University of Toronto in 1941, when the world was at war, going straight from high school into a fast-track medical program designed to provide doctors for the war effort. He volunteered for the war in the Pacific, but was encouraged to finish his studies.
In those days, there was a quota on Jewish students at the university, and Toronto General Hospital did not welcome Jewish doctors on staff. When Oscar graduated, the hospital had just begun recruiting the top two Jewish graduates from U of T. He was one of them.
With his new bride, Joyce Frankel Kofman, Oscar moved to Britain in 1950 to study at London’s National Hospital for Nervous Diseases. In 1951, they returned to Toronto, where Oscar became an attending neurologist at Toronto General.
Shortly after, construction began on the New Mt. Sinai Hospital, a refuge for Jewish doctors, whose options were still limited by quotas. Oscar established the neurological unit there.
Medicine was staggeringly different then. There were fewer tools for a neurologist – no CAT scans or MRIs. If there was a suspect mass in the brain, the only way to see it was a painful procedure that involved draining a portion of spinal fluid and injecting dye into the spinal column.
His Parkinson’s research was interrupted in 1976 when he was asked to study mercury intoxication of the nervous systems of Cree Indians at Grassy Narrows Reserve in Northwestern Ontario. The findings led to a ban on eating fish in the area and a massive clean-up and monitoring of pulp mill operations.
In 1977, he led a similar, much larger, two-year study in Chibougamou, Que., which resulted in new oversight of pulp and mining operations and a huge cash settlement for those affected by mercury contamination.
My father juggled medicine, research, teaching and two decades on the board of the Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons. Yet somehow he managed to spend weekends skiing with the family and a month each summer at the place he loved best, the family cottage on Georgian Bay.
Before he died, he said that he loved his career, but that his proudest legacy is his family.
Jeffrey Kofman is Oscar’s son.
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