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Saturday July 2, 2011

'Extraordinary leader' had a huge impact on the Montreal Neurological Institute

Visionary believed science moves forward most significantly as a result of undirected, non-targeted, curiosity-driven research

Special to The Globe and Mail

In 1934, on the campus of McGill University, neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield founded the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital and significantly advanced the state of neuroscience in Canada.

Describing Penfield's underlying vision several years ago, David Colman explained: "The purpose of the new institute was the study of neurological diseases using the most advanced methods possible, and to use the new knowledge to return to the clinic with innovative tools and therapies ..."

The creation of "an open corridor from the patient's bedside to the scientist's lab bench" was a vision Colman embraced fully and championed unrelentingly in his nine years as director of The Neuro, as it is known. His death on June 1, at the age of 62, was a profound shock and loss not only to his family but also to countless colleagues.

"People use the word 'brilliant' very cavalierly, but it really applied to Dave," says Heather Munroe-Blum, principal of McGill. "He was compassionate and empathic but he was also extremely determined, which is key in a field that is morphing as rapidly as neuroscience. He was an extraordinary leader."

Jacques Bougie, chair of The Neuro's advisory, agrees, saying, "We have very few opportunities in life to work with a person as brilliant as he was. His recognition was worldwide and that is no doubt why he was brought to The Neuro, one of top neurological institutes in the world. He was a visionary but also practical, rigorous yet extremely funny, decisive, multidimensional. He was also a deeply committed family man, with two lovely daughters and a loving wife."

David Russell Colman was born on Jan. 4, 1949, in Washington Heights at the top end of Manhattan. His father, Maurice, was an accountant and his mother, Ruth, stayed home to raise David and his sister Carol. "I think we were brought up with a sense of such hope," Carol Colman says. "We weren't an affluent family, but Dave and I had really great parents - they were very curious about the world. There was just a real normalness to our childhood.

"When our parents realized Dave was interested in science," she says, "they got him a subscription to Science News and then ordered science kits that arrived every month. Dave had those from an early age and worked very hard with them." There was also classical music in the Colman home, and around the age of 13 the budding scientist taught himself to play both guitar and bluegrass banjo "effortlessly and well."

Having passed the entrance exams, Colman enrolled in the prestigious Bronx High School of Science - the trip took an hour each way every day. In later years, he sometimes relabelled himself as "a kid from the Bronx."

In 1970 he graduated from New York University with a BSc in biology, and in 1977 was awarded a PhD in neuroscience by the State University of New York, after which came a postdoctoral fellowship at NYU in the lab of molecular cell biologist David Sabatini. During his years as a graduate student, introduced by mutual friends, Colman first encountered Munroe-Blum and her husband, Len. Munroe-Blum still remembers a visit to Manhattan, during which Colman led them up "three or four rickety flights of stairs" to try Szechuan food for the first time.

It was at NYU that Colman met Elizabeth Wikstrom, who worked for the dean of admissions at the School of Medicine. "I think really it was love at first sight," his sister remembers. "He just told us, 'I've seen this girl,' and that was it."

Beyond science, and a particular interest in myelination, spinal cord injury, and nerve cell development and regeneration, Colman was fascinated by other things. Sometimes he liked to cook. On one occasion - when he and his brother-in-law decided to make Peking duck - he surprised his sister by drilling holes into the top of her oven.

In 1983, he was appointed assistant professor at NYU School of Medicine. Then in 1987 came an associate professorship at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. In 1993, he became the first Annenberg Professor of Molecular Biology and Neuroscience at Mount Sinai Hospital; and in 2000, scientific director at the Corinne Goldsmith Dickinson Center for Multiple Sclerosis and vice-chairman for research in neurology at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

Around the time Colman joined Mount Sinai, he and his wife bought a summer home on Deer Isle in Maine. According to Phil Barker, a colleague at The Neuro, "Dave loved to read, especially about the history of science. They had an old clapboard house with a barn behind it there, and he could just relax, spend time with his family, read and write."

Colman was a native New Yorker through and through, but in 2002 he accepted a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair and with his wife and two young daughters moved to Montreal. He became the Wilder Graves Penfield Professor at McGill and director of the MNIH. (The Institute is a part of McGill and the Hospital is one of five teaching hospitals of the McGill University Health Centre.)

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