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She revelled in standing up to power and was unafraid to express herself, even when her beliefs ran counter to conventional wisdom
Special to The Globe and Mail

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Monday, January 22, 2018 – Page B17

A self-described loudmouth who always stood up for underdogs, a fierce mentor and an epidemiologist whose opinions sometimes ran counter to conventional wisdom, Abby Lippman had what her younger brother called a "shell of crankiness that was almost impenetrable."

"We argued all the time about most everything," said Marc Lippman, a breast-cancer specialist and professor at the University of Miami. "I disagreed with many of her positions - but she was my dear, my closest sister."

Arguments with Dr. Lippman, a professor emeritus in the Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health at McGill University, were de rigueur, for she revelled in standing up to power and was unafraid to express herself in plainspoken, pointed terms. She campaigned against what she called the "geneticization" of reproductive technologies, against hormone replacement therapy and for better, longer research before the approval of discoveries such as the vaccines against the human papillomavirus, an affliction that scientists have linked to cervical, anal, mouth and throat cancers.

Indeed, in October, 2015, Dr. Lippman teamed up with Geneviève Rail, a kinesiologist and professor in the Simone de Beauvoir Institute at Concordia University and Luisa Molino, a Concordia research associate, to write an op-ed against the vaccine in Le Devoir that called for authorities to stop administering it. Given that the vaccines are recommended by practically every major medical body in the developed world, including the World Health Organization and the Canadian Cancer Society, the article caused a furor.

"The Quebec trio's attempt to frame their criticism of the HPV vaccine as part of a 'debate' is both self-aggrandizing and ludicrous," stated one letter signed by 42 academics and scientists from across Canada. "So far, they have contributed nothing to science but their strident voices. And they certainly are not victims; rather, they are making victims of children who might not receive the HPV vaccine because of their actions."

In another, experts noted the authors were confusing coincidence with causality: "In effect, after getting the HPV vaccine, certain people may have won the lottery. Is that to say that the vaccine caused these fortunate monetary gains? Definitely not!"

Then, there was Dr. Lippman's passion for causes such as the rights of Indigenous women, gender equality and the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, which targets Israel for its treatment of Palestinians. If there was a protest, she'd be there, wielding a placard, chanting and speaking to the crowd, even when she was in her 70s, her son said.

And even when it was -25 C outside.

"I'd ask, 'Do we really want to go on that protest march?' She'd reply, 'Yes,' and so we would," Chris Hand recalled.

It was Mr. Hand who found Dr. Lippman's body on Dec. 26, in her home after what appeared to be a tumble down two steps. She was 78 years old.

Abby Lippman was born in New York on Dec. 11, 1939, the elder by eight years of Abbott and Ruth Lippman's two children. Her father was a prominent psychiatrist and her mother sold hats at Abraham & Straus, the fabled department store, before becoming a formidable volunteer for institutions such as New York Mental Health Association.

The family lived in a comfortable home in Brooklyn, where young Abby attended Erasmus Hall High School, the alma mater of luminaries such as Barbra Streisand and author Bernard Malamud. She would earn a bachelor of arts at Cornell University, and a PhD in biology at McGill. Her thesis was titled Genetic Counselling: Parents' Responses to Uncertainty.

Dr. Lippman had ended up in Montreal in the summer of 1973 because her husband at the time, geneticist Roger Hand, had accepted a professorship at McGill's medical faculty. The couple, who met in high school, had married on Dec. 24, 1961; as she became more self-aware and rebellious, their relationship became ever more tempestuous.

"One time, my father got so angry, he hurled a glass of vodka at her. Fortunately, he missed," Mr. Hand said. "Because she was such an ardent feminist, I once asked her why she married our father.

She said 'At that time, I could not imagine being a person unless I was married.' "When the family moved to Montreal, there was one place Dr. Lippman was determined never to live: Westmount, the leafy municipality just west of downtown. It was too English, she determined from her research, and too federalist. She had developed a soft spot for the Parti Québécois, which had been founded less than five years earlier, and for francophones, whom she saw as suffering from the prejudice of the monied anglophone elite.

But when the couple fell in love with one grey stone house on Mount Pleasant Avenue, their real estate agent neglected to name the area, instead carefully describing it as "downtown-adjacent." It was only as Dr. Lippman signed papers during the closing that she realized it was located exactly where she did not want to be. But the deed was done and she would remain in the house until she died.

As a professor at McGill, she could be acid of tongue about people she did not like and extraordinarily generous of her time with people who needed help, former colleague Barry Pless said.

"In a course we taught together, one of the major problems we faced was trying to help people whose first language was not English," Dr. Pless said. "Abby would habitually encourage them to come to class for private tutelage by her.

"I could be irritated by some of her aggressivity - it was hard to have a whole conversation with her when the subject was something she didn't agree with - but she did such good in all sorts of ways," he continued.

Dr. Lippman was a familiar figure, with her cropped grey hair and often wearing a black sweater, loose jeans and white sneakers. Over the years, she was involved with a number of organizations, aside from the BDS movement.

Lucy Anacleto of Montreal's Centre for Gender Advocacy said issues such as missing women, misogyny and systemic racism were visceral and difficult to deal with but, somehow, her friend, who sat on the board, found a way through it.

"I first connected with her because of her love of language, of words and puns," Ms. Anacleto said.

"She taught me the meaning of 'growlery,' a place to retreat to when you're hurt or in a bad mood, and of 'Pollyanna.' She was the opposite of 'Pollyanna,' of course, for she was very much a realist."

Another friend, Anne Rochon Ford of the National Network on Environments and Women's Health at York University, said Dr. Lippman eschewed any kind of official recognition for her work, including the Order of Quebec.

"Years ago, when we tried to nominate her, she wouldn't hear of it because she said those kinds of institutions were set up to reward people who would get rewarded anyway," Ms. Rochon Ford recalled.

"She was engaged to the last minute, whether it was attending meetings of the various organizations she belonged to, working for the causes she put her name behind, writing letters to the editor or going to demonstrations."

After her death, as Dr. Lippman's daughter, Jessica Hand, went through papers in the Westmount house, she discovered receipts for bail her mother had paid on behalf of people charged during Quebec's "Maple Spring" of 2012, when the province was rocked by protests sparked by a proposed hike in university tuition.

"In her will, she emphasizes the bail payments are not loans but gifts," Dr. Lippman's son said.

"They couldn't have afforded to bail themselves out, so our mother did."

She leaves her two children and two grandchildren, who were the lights of her life.

To submit an I Remember: Send us a memory of someone we have recently profiled on the Obituaries page.

Please include I Remember in the subject field

Associated Graphic

Abby Lippman, seen here in an undated photo, was an epidemiologist who was known for being extraordinarily generous with her time for people who needed help.


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