Donald Stuss truly intended to quit working when he retired for the first time. After stepping down in 2010 as vice-president of research at Baycrest and founding director of Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute, a Toronto brain-research centre that became world-class under his leadership, Dr. Stuss took his partner, friends and children for a trip to Italy. The vacation was to celebrate what he believed was an end to his illustrious career in neuropsychology as a researcher, clinician and organizational leader.
“He said to me … ‘We’ve got to slow down now,’ ” his partner, Lourenza Fourie, said. “Clearly, the complete opposite happened.”
In his 70s, Dr. Stuss went on to achieve some of his greatest accomplishments, including establishing the renowned Ontario Brain Institute (OBI) as founding president and scientific director. He also expanded his hefty collection of accolades, including being named an officer of the Order of Canada in 2016 and receiving the Canadian Society for Brain, Behaviour and Cognitive Science’s prestigious Donald O. Hebb Distinguished Contribution Award in 2016.
Until the final days of his life, he continued to give lectures, write papers, mentor young scientists, collaborate with his peers and care for patients with the insight, empathy, warmth and joie de vivre that were his defining characteristics.
“He was always unselfishly trying to help things evolve that could do good for mankind,” said his friend and colleague, cognitive neurologist Sandra Black, who considered him a professional “soulmate.” “He really was the most unnarcissistic, dedicated person I have ever met.”
Dr. Stuss died at his home in Toronto on Sept. 3, at the age of 77, due to complications from cancer. He leaves his partner, Ms. Fourie, a clinical neuropsychologist with whom he shared a joint practice; and his two children, David and Leanne, with his former wife, Kaaren Stuss (née Kummer).
Dr. Stuss did not begin his career in neuropsychology until middle age, following a circuitous path that led him first to become a monk, a high-school teacher and a guidance counsellor.
He was born on Sept. 26, 1941 in Sudbury, and grew up in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont., where his Ukrainian-Canadian parents ran a diner attached to their home called Anne’s Lunch. He spent his formative years at the lunch counter, learning the value of hard work and how to treat others from his mother, Anne, a woman known for her great hospitality and homemade chicken noodle soup.
A bright student with a rebellious streak, Dr. Stuss left Kitchener to join a monastery in Mundare, Alta., soon after graduating from high school as class valedictorian. The move was contrary to his father’s wishes for him to become a doctor or lawyer.
Life in the Basilian monastery, run by a Ukrainian sect of the Catholic church, was austere and “sounded relatively unpleasant,” says David Stuss, adding the six years his father spent in the seminary were filled with hard labour, such as constructing buildings, and long stretches of silent contemplation. But there, Dr. Stuss came across the writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest and paleontologist, which helped shape his view of the world.
Teilhard, whose ideas were considered heretical to the church, believed in evolution, but that evolution occurred with a purpose toward a collective human consciousness. Although Dr. Stuss never explicitly discussed why it was so important to him, David Stuss says he believes Teilhard’s Christian, yet scientific, vision of trying to perfect oneself in concert with others became a through-line in his father’s life’s work.
With little opportunity to put the ideas he was learning into practice, Dr. Stuss left the monastery to earn a degree in philosophy at the University of Ottawa and St. Paul’s University. He became a high-school teacher and football coach in Peterborough, Ont., Kitchener and Ottawa. As a teacher in Peterborough, he met his future wife, Kaaren, who was working as a nurse at a hospital where he received knee surgery. The two were married for 28 years and maintained a respectful relationship after they parted, Ms. Stuss said.
“He was an extraordinary person,” she said. “I was really, really lucky that he came to the hospital to have his knee fixed.”
Dr. Stuss eventually also became a high-school guidance counsellor, but went back to study psychology at the University of Ottawa because he felt he lacked the knowledge to fully help the students he was counselling. He went on to do a postdoctoral fellowship in Boston, where he worked with the famous U.S. neuropsychologist Edith Kaplan.
Upon returning to Canada, he worked at the Ottawa General Hospital and later became a professor at the University of Ottawa.
In 1989, he was recruited to Toronto to establish the Rotman Research Institute. In doing so, he also demonstrated his knack for leadership. His modus operandi was to first come up with a set of principles which would then guide him in setting up and running an organization, said his friend, colleague and former graduate supervisor, Terry Picton.
For instance, “when he [led] the Rotman Research Institute, the most important thing was the people,” said Dr. Picton, professor emeritus at the University of Toronto, explaining this led him to ensure the institute invested in good scientists, instead of focusing on research projects. “Then, if he got good people, they would get their own funding for research.”
Dr. Stuss also had an uncanny ability to get people to work together on scientific problems, he added.
“That was the thing he was really a genius at,” Dr. Picton said, noting he also later brought this gift to the OBI, an organization designed to foster collaboration and the sharing of scientific findings to improve patients’ lives.
As a researcher, Dr. Stuss gained prominence for advancing the understanding of the various functions of the frontal lobes of the brain. His approach, which involved laboriously studying patients with “lesions,” or injuries, in certain parts of the brain and observing their patterns of behaviour, may be “old-fashioned” today, but remains fundamental to understanding the brain, said Dr. Black, director of the Hurvitz Brain Sciences Research Program at Sunnybrook Health Sciences and executive director of the Toronto Dementia Research Alliance.
Dr. Stuss published a long list of thought-changing papers, and co-authored books, The Frontal Lobes and Principles of Frontal Lobe Function.
What drove his research, however, was the desire to translate his findings to helping people, Dr. Black said, noting he succeeded in helping many people struggling with frontal-lobe issues through his trail-blazing work in cognitive rehabilitation.
After ostensibly retiring a second time when he left the OBI in 2016, Dr. Stuss had no end of projects and meetings. Yet he was no slave to work. He was a bon vivant – a world traveller, a keen outdoorsman and a lover of fine wine and dancing. His vast collection of music included classical, heavy metal and a heavy dose of James Brown.
Ms. Fourie said he once threatened to fire a staff member for always staying late at work.
“He said, ‘If you don’t have balance and you don’t go home for supper, you cannot work here,’ ” she said, explaining that he firmly believed in the need for solitude and contemplation, which he called keeping a “monastery of the mind."
Ms. Fourie said she and Dr. Stuss met at a conference in South Africa in 2003, and became inseparable thereafter.
Dr. Stuss appreciated life’s simple pleasures and took joy in connecting with people of all walks of life, including a homeless man he befriended in his neighbourhood, Ms. Fourie said. A private memorial for him, for close friends and family, was attended by more than 100 guests.
“Whenever Don Stuss crossed your path … he became a friend,” Ms. Fourie said.