John Dirks is the emeritus president and scientific director of the Gairdner Foundation.
At a time when medical science is playing the key role in treating the global COVID-19 pandemic, it is only appropriate that we celebrate the 100th birthday of molecular biologist, scientific leader and genetics pioneer Dr. Louis Siminovitch today. After all, Lou – as he is affectionately known – is considered by many to have had the most substantial impact on Canadian medical science in our time.
The works of English architect Christopher Wren are so prominent in London that his bequest can be found, as the famous quote goes, if you just “look around you,” and the same can be said of Lou in Toronto, where a constellation of notable research institutes, hospitals and networks of top scientists will speak to his legacy. And when Lou has felt Canadian science was running behind in quality or slow to engage new advances like genomics, he has energetically stepped up to the plate to forcefully challenge the political and academic powers of the day through his powerful pen – lots and lots of letters – to turn things around.
“One can only stand in awe," said Henry Friesen, the founder of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, “of the profound influence Lou Siminovitch has had in inspiring so many young students, building and developing major scientific institutions, and offering decision makers wise counsel in cultivating a more robust science culture in Canada.”
So how did Lou become such a respected icon? He was born in Montreal of Eastern European parents who lived near the poverty line and had little interest in learning and culture. In high school, Lou was a so-so student, surrounded by many who spent their time in leftist politics. He entered McGill with an interest in chemistry and, stimulated by a top professor, made science his career choice.
Lou embarked on a PhD in physical chemistry, graduating in 1944. He married Elinore, who typed his thesis, and they moved to Ottawa and Chalk River. There, he worked on nuclear research, meeting every day with bright scientists such as Italian physicist Bruno Pontecorvo (who later defected to the Soviet Union), kindling Lou’s excitement in science.
Lou has a habit of riding the ways of fortune between opportunity, despair and joy. When his interest turned to biology – he likes to say that he has a high mutation rate, seeking new challenges and new fields every 10 years – he met French and Canadian scientist Louis Rapkine, who invited Lou to join his lab in Paris where he became a successful experimenter. But Rapkine died suddenly, leaving Lou with no mentor and no lab.
Instead, Lou managed to join the high-level lab of André Lwoff, Jacques Monod and François Jacob at the Pasteur Institute. Those three men shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1965, and in that period, Lou produced some of his most original scientific work. Collaborating with those giants, who rigorously explored big questions, branded Lou with the principle that defines him: Nothing less than excellence is good enough. “What distinguishes Lou … was that he has had no tolerance for compromise on excellence in science," said Calvin Stiller, a colleague of Lou’s for 50 years. "He literally snorts when he observes mediocrity; he senses bogus in a blink.”
In 1953, ready to return to Canada, Lou joined the famed Connaught Laboratories in Toronto – the city he has made his home, and where he began distinguishing himself through a parade of remarkable opportunities. In 1956, prominent Canadian histologist Arthur Ham appointed Lou to the Ontario Cancer Institute, where he established his independent research career with critical studies in the stem cell discovery and cancer research, and rapidly became the head of biological research. In 1968, he was invited to chair a new department in the University of Toronto’s medical school that incorporated genetics and immunology, two themes that had been missing in the faculty; this grew into a major research unit.
In 1978, Lou became head of genetics at SickKids hospital, again bringing in new talent and technologies, and setting the stage for world-class accomplishment in cloning genes like cystic fibrosis. And in 1984, while concurrently shaping a new research institute at the Baycrest geriatric centre for Joe Rotman, he was asked to develop a brand new research institute at Mount Sinai Hospital, with up-to-date molecular biology related to major diseases. He recruited stars like Tony Pawson, Janet Rossant and many more in the creation of the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute – arguably the pinnacle of his achievements.
Lou deeply influenced research development at the University of Toronto and many Canadian institutions, as well as the national and provincial research funding agencies. But in building all these institutions, he was the one sought out to lead – he never applied for any position.
His advice is constantly and widely sought – and usually heeded. “It’s impossible for me to convey how much I learned from Lou through all those years and how much I owe him," said David Naylor, the former president of the University of Toronto. “The advice came at lunches where the real menu was on Lou’s cue cards with its list of topics to be discussed or at other times in long, meticulously argued emails. Many Canadian leaders had the same experience.”
Highly esteemed, Lou has received many awards and honorary degrees, including the Companion of the Order of Canada, the Canada Gairdner Wightman Award and induction to the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame. Internationally, he is one of few Canadians elected to both the Royal Society of the U.K. and the U.S. National Academy. He was truly one of the great medical builders of his day, a list that includes John Evans, Fraser Mustard and Jacques Genest, to name just a few.
Lou placed major emphasis on cultivating talent, creating intellectual descendants and finding outstanding leaders who have truly innovated – and not many make his A-list. “Lou’s science will never die, in that he has generated not only ideas, but offspring who will continue to carry out his work," said Montreal physician Phil Gold.
Lou can be described in many ways. He’s a driver of excellence and deeply committed to the idea that science can solve societal problems. He’s an institution, remembering how things happened and still worrying about where Canada stands as a nation in the world of science today. He’s a disturber of the status quo and a skilled science politician. He’s a passionate family man and, prompted by his playwright wife, he became an avid pursuer of culture in the arts and humanities, and the Elinore & Lou Siminovitch Prize in Theatre was developed by friends. Clearly, Lou could bridge the sciences and the arts.
And he is still the same old Lou. He goes to the office most days, surrounding himself with pictures of great art, mentors and family. He reads voraciously, absorbing daily newspapers, journals such as Science and Nature, as well as the books of the day. As he always says: “I am still here.”
As a centenarian who still stimulates and provokes, and who still yearns to build a better place, Lou deserves a public toast. We might not be able to do that right now, as we wrestle with the novel coronavirus and all its devastation. But as scientists fight the deadly infection, it’s a perfect time to remember the scientific foundations that this giant of Canadian medicine laid down. So on behalf of scientists from coast to coast to coast – “Canada has been good to me,” he likes to say, and the same is true in reverse – we raise a glass to you, Lou.
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