We are celebrating with Dr. Louis Siminovitch; The Founder of our Department and Father of Genetics Research in Canada

contributed by MoGen graduate students Sabrina Hyde and Laura Hergott

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As the Molecular Genetics 50th Anniversary Symposium approaches, we have been reflecting on the rich history of the department’s early beginnings and all of the inspiring individuals who have made it the world-renowned program it is today. It would be impossible for us not to highlight Dr. Louis “Lou” Siminovitch, a great and influential force in Canadian biomedical science, who founded the Department in 1969 under the name of Medical Cell Biology at the University of Toronto.

In April, we were very fortunate to share about an hour of Dr. Siminovitch’s time, and ask him about some of his perspectives on the department he founded 50 years ago. We met him at his office in Mount Sinai Hospital where he spends his time consulting as the Director Emeritus of LTRI and keeping up to date on current science. He warmly welcomed us, and was eager to share his thoughts. We originally planned our interview to focus on the history of the Department, and we were extremely pleased that Lou wanted to share both personal as well as professional anecdotes after he moved to Toronto in 1953.

In addition to his role at U of T, Dr. Siminovitch played a leadership role in the establishment of the Ontario Cancer Institute (OCI) and the Department of Genetics at the Hospital for Sick Children and founded and was the first Director of the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Institute (LTRI) at Mount Sinai Hospital. In addition to his leadership roles, he has authored over 200 publications in a variety of scientific fields including bacterial and animal virus genetics, human genetics, and cancer research. His pursuit of excellence led him to receive many awards and honorary degrees, including the Izaac Walton Killam Memorial Prize and the Gairdner Foundation Wightman Award. He was also promoted within the Order of Canada to Companion in 1989, an honour recognizing outstanding achievement, dedication to the community, and service to the nation. The importance of Lou’s contributions to science is evidenced by the international honours he has received, most notably being named a Fellow, Royal Society (London) (F.R.S.) and a foreign associate to the US National Academy of Sciences.

We asked Dr. Siminovitch about the origins of the department of Medical Genetics in 1969. At the time, he was fully enjoying his position as head of the Biology group at the OCI when Lawrence (Laurie) Chute, the Dean of U of T’s Faculty of Medicine, invited him to move to the campus to develop and become the first head of a new department, Medical Genetics. There was some discontent about his appointment by others in the medical school who felt “We do not need a genetics department because it is not relevant to medical care” and that Lou might be an inappropriate recruit as he had “not trained in Toronto, only in Europe.” However, Lou rapidly grew his team of scientists and the department quickly gained international recognition. We could see on his face how proud he was of the quick progress he and his colleagues made. He made sure to recognize and to emphasize the quality of the scientists who laid the foundation for the Department’s research success: “We became recognized very quickly… not because of me, but because of the people we recruited... no-one in the country was doing our kind of work" and people wanted to be here as they understood that genetics was the science of the future.” As described above, Dr. Siminovitch served many leadership roles at the U of T and he was instrumental in mentoring several generations of scientists. He continues to influence the scientific community today.

Although Dr. Siminovitch’s scientific achievements are many and his influence on science in Canada is extraordinary, our conversation was dominated by his thoughts on his family. He highlighted how important it was to him to balance family life with his work, which was a difficult concept at the time (and still is) for many dedicated scientists. He spoke of his three daughters, his grandchildren, and his newborn great-grandchild. And he spoke most fondly of his late wife Elinore, who “kept [him] in check”, and made sure he was home for dinner every night, even if he went back to work after he sat down with his family. The overwhelming amount of love and admiration he had for her was made apparent when speaking with Dr. Siminovitch. Elinore was a playwright and loved the theatre, literature and the arts in general. Lou explained “I was focused on my science, but she got me involved in the world of the arts and humanities.” One of the reasons the young couple settled in Toronto to raise their family was for the rich culture it provided; “every Friday [Lou] had to be home,” and “[they] went out”, enjoying what the city had to offer. In addition to the portraits of “[his scientific] mentors…”, including French scientist and humanist Louis Rapkine and Canadian scientist Arthur Ham, displayed in his office at LTRI, there are also many artistic prints. Lou remarked that it is due to the influence of Elinore, that his office walls are decorated with prints of works by Modigliani, Chagall, Monet, Kollwitz and Giacometti.

In our short visit, Dr. Siminovitch shared many sides of himself, not only the distinguished scientist, but also the newcomer, the leader, the dedicated husband, and mentor to many. We truly had a wonderful time being able to share many laughs and fascinating stories with him. 

We are happy that Lou will join us at the symposium to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the department he played such a crucial role in founding. 

Please join us and Lou in celebrating 50 years on May 31st 2019!