Days before Clyde Hertzman was to receive the 2010 award for Canada's Health Researcher of the Year, friend and colleague Ziba Vaghri pulled aside the world-renowned early-childhood development researcher.
"I said, 'Clyde, you're going to go for your ceremony. For God's sake, buy a suit this time,' " recalled Dr. Vaghri, an assistant professor at the University of B.C.'s Human Early Learning Partnership (HELP), of which Dr. Hertzman was director.
"He said, 'No. Do you know how a stocky, short man like me would look in a suit?' Then he said, 'I'm just joking.' "
The exchange is one of many lasting memories Dr. Vaghri has of her friend and mentor, who died suddenly late last week at the age of 59 while working abroad in London. The cause of his death is not yet known.
Dr. Hertzman's wardrobe selection – often khakis or jeans and a madras shirt – reflected the disarming, down-to-earth personality of a man who had much to be proud of, friends say. Heralded by colleagues as a guru in his field, the Vancouver native specialized in the study of early learning, examining the impact genetic and environmental factors have on physiology and development – "from cell to society," he would say.
Dr. Hertzman was a Canada Research Chair in population health and human development, and a professor in the School of Population and Public Health at UBC. He was awarded the Order of Canada last month.
Friend and colleague Jim Dunn called Dr. Hertzman the "ultimate blend of scholar and advocate," noting that he made a complex subject accessible by adding the element of humanity.
"He brought a body of knowledge that was somewhat sequestered in clinical studies and experimental studies and really mainstreamed it for the policy audience and the general public at large," he said. "The conversation that we have in this country about healthy child development – we don't always act on it – is far more sophisticated than it was 15 years ago, and Clyde was a huge part of that."
Dr. Hertzman coined the term "biological embedding" – the concept of experiences and social environments altering human biological and developmental processes, leading to long-term changes in health, well-being, learning or behaviour.
In a statement posted to its website, HELP said Dr. Hertzman's influence in the fields of early child development, population health and epidemiology has been significant locally, nationally and internationally.
"We have lost a dear friend, an inspiration to all of us and a leader whose shoes can never be filled."
B.C. Premier Christy Clark also offered high praise for Dr. Hertzman in a statement issued Sunday.
"British Columbia has lost one of its brightest lights in Dr. Hertzman," Ms. Clark said. "His trailblazing work on early childhood and human development attracted global attention. The research he has led will continue to change lives for the better. Recognized not only as a world leader, but an inspiration to those who followed and supported his work, I can think of few people who better represented B.C. and Canada at our finest."
Dr. Hertzman leaves his partner, Marcy; his three children Eric, Emily and Amos; and his mother, Eileen.