Skip to main content

Mostafa Elhilali was instrumental in the development of new surgical techniques for men with prostate enlargments, and shared techniques around the world – especially in Egypt.

Dr. Mostafa Elhilali brought relief to thousands of men in Canada and abroad with his revolutionary laser surgery for benign enlargement of the prostate. Dr. Elhilali, who has died at the age of 79, was a professor of urology at McGill and a practising physician with an international reputation in his field. His work focused on kidney stones as well as prostate problems, both cancerous and benign.

Dr. Elhilali was on the forefront of treating benign prostatic hyperplasia, also known as an enlarged prostate, which, among other things, has older men getting up many times a night to urinate.

"The last 15 years of his career were involved in the development of new surgical techniques for men with benign enlargement of the prostate. He was teaching surgical techniques around the world, and was probably one of the urologists with the most experience in this surgical technique," said Dr. Simon Tanguay, professor and chair, Division of Urology, and the Mostafa Elhilali/David Azrieli Chair in Urologic Sciences at McGill University.

Dr. Elhilali's reputation wasn't built on pure research, though he did some of that, but on working to help his patients, located in Montreal and Egypt, where he was born, as well as other countries.

"He always cared about the lack of care for the poor and dispossessed," said Cynthia Gordon, his partner for the past five years. "You could see that on our trip to Sudan last November and to Baghdad in February to urological conferences in those countries. He was also in high demand when he went back to Egypt to operate and to pass on his knowledge to surgeons there."

He would make two or three trips a year to Egypt.

"If there was a urologic meeting in Egypt, he would always go because he mentored and taught a lot of Egyptian doctors, and his brother and my sister still live there," said his son Mohamed Elhilali, who lives in Montreal. Other countries where he helped supervise surgery included Kuwait, Sudan and Saudi Arabia.

Mostafa Mohamed Elhilali was born on Nov. 3, 1937, in Minia, in southern Egypt. His father, Mohamed, was a government official then a businessman. His mother, the former Suzanne Israel, converted to Islam when she married and changed her name to Zeinab, though family and friends called her Suzy.

"I was born and raised in Upper Egypt, where my father worked as a director of income tax offices for southern Egypt. Our family is deeply rooted there and I was surrounded by a very politically oriented family of lawyers, landowners, farmers and others who wasted large fortunes. I learned a lesson or two from each that forever influenced my decisions in life," Dr. Elhilali wrote in a biographical note in the Canadian Journal of Urology.

He finished high school at 15 at the American College, a private school. One of his uncles was the last prime minister of Egypt under King Farouk, who was deposed by Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1952. That uncle, who had a large law firm in Cairo, wanted him to be a lawyer. His father prevailed and he went to medical school at Cairo University.

He trained as a urologist in Egypt and began practising there. It was difficult for him to get an exit visa to study under the Nasser regime, but he managed it and headed to McGill University, in Montreal, in 1964, where her earned a PhD on a specialized subject within the field of prostate cancer.

After graduating, he worked as a surgeon in Montreal and in the early sevtnies, he was offered a position at McGill, but instead moved to Sherbrooke, Que., to become the chief of the Department of Urology for 14 years at the hospital there. He also taught at the University of Sherbrooke. He worked with Philippe Couillard, Quebec's current Premier, and taught the province's current Minister of Health, Gaétan Barrette, who was then a resident.

Dr. Elhilali returned to McGill University in 1982 as chair of its Department of Urology. Along with teaching, research, seeing patients and performing surgery, Dr. Elhilali was active with national and international organizations, including the Société Internationale d'Urologie (SIU), where he served as became general secretary. He said he wanted to ensure that innovations in his field were known around the world, to "spread the word," as he liked to put it.

"Dr. Elhilali was a world-renowned urologist and specialist in prostatic diseases. He was both a surgeon-in-chief and urologist at the Royal Victoria and Montreal General hospitals, in Montreal. He served as the chairman of the Department of Surgery, and also held the position of Stephen Jarislowsky Chair in Urology at McGill University," said the SIU in a eulogy on its website.

Dr. Elhilali moved the headquarters of the SIU from France to Montreal in 1997. He was named to both the Order of Canada (2001) and the National Order of Quebec (2009).

"In Quebec, he was one of the original founders of the Alliance Procure, a non-profit organization that helps men with prostate cancer. It has two roles: one is education and the other one is to support research for prostate cancer," Dr. Tanguay said. (One in seven men in Canada will get prostate cancer and, of those, a quarter will die from it.)

"He had a clinical practice, he was still working full time. A lot of his research was patient-oriented, it wasn't science in the laboratory research, it was really applied research," he added.

Dr. Elhilali worked until the last few hours of his life. He was attending a conference of the American Association of Genitourinary Surgeons, in Key Biscayne, Fla., on April 29, when he went for a swim in the ocean and suffered a heart attack.

The return of his body to Canada was delayed because his death took place in a foreign country.

"In the modern tradition, the burial should happen within 48 hours. My father was observant. In his case, he passed away on Saturday and we buried him on Wednesday. It upset some members of the family here and in Egypt," his son Mohamed said.

Dr. Elhilali is survived by his brother, Medhat; his children, Halla, Mohamed, Sharif, Mona and Amanda; and by his partner, Cynthia Gordon.