Dr. Lou Siminovitch, the force behind early genetics research in Canada, dies at age 100

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Dr. Lou Siminovitch, a pioneering genetic researcher in Canada, died this week at age 100.  (Submitted by Kathy Siminovitch - image credit)
Dr. Lou Siminovitch, a pioneering genetic researcher in Canada, died this week at age 100. (Submitted by Kathy Siminovitch - image credit)

When Dr. Jim Woodgett pictures Dr. Lou Siminovitch, he sees him on a sofa in his office at Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital, surrounded by books.

Not just the latest issues of the Journal of Science and Nature, which he continued to receive in hardcopy long after most were reading online — but novels and non-fiction as well, stacked high among the photographs, journals and notes that filled the room.

"He had this chaos around him," said Woodgett, a longtime colleague and friend.

"But he made sense of that chaos."

A molecular biologist and geneticist who has been described as "master builder of Canadian biomedical science," Siminovitch died this week at 100.

"My father was hugely curious. He wanted to know everything about everything, how things worked," said Dr. Kathy Siminovitch, who followed him into the field of genetics and also works at Mount Sinai hospital.

"It's hard to imagine any one person who shaped biomedical research in a country as much as my father did in this country."

'He appreciated seeking out new things all the time, at 100 years of age,' said Woodgett of Siminovitch.
'He appreciated seeking out new things all the time, at 100 years of age,' said Woodgett of Siminovitch. (Submitted by Kathy Siminovitch)

Over the course of his lengthy career, Siminovitch helped establish the Ontario Cancer Institute, the department of genetics at the Hospital for Sick Children, and the Samuel Lunenfeld Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital.

He was also the founder and the first chair of the department of molecular genetics at the University of Toronto, then called the department of medical cell biology.

"Four times, he played a leadership role where his vision, and understanding of science in the broad sense, allowed him to build departments that turned out to be world-leading," said Dr. Ron Worton, who succeeded Siminovitch as geneticist-in-chief at SickKids in 1985.

"To do that... is pretty remarkable."

Recruited by Siminovitch in 1971 to work at the hospital, Worton remembers a colleague who was visionary and demanding, and who didn't hesitate to reach out when he thought someone could do better.

The group of researchers he brought in, including Worton, went on to identify the genes associated with diseases like cystic fibrosis and Wilson's disease.

"He didn't actively participate in that work, but I can tell you with absolute certainty that none of that would have taken place if he had not hired the group he did," he said.

Woodgett sees his influence similarly — as a leader who brought together top researchers from diverse backgrounds to tease out thorny medical problems.

"He's had tremendous influence on encouraging science, particularly in Toronto," said Woodgett.

"But he's had an international influence and helped to really to establish the importance of genetics, and the treatment of various diseases."

A passion for fostering Canadian theatre

Born in Montreal in 1920, Siminovitch attended McGill University, where he met his wife, Elinore.

Together, they moved to Paris after the Second World War as he studied at the Pasteur Institute.

Struck by the cultural richness of Paris, Elinore went on to become a playwright, and brought to the partnership her passion for the arts.

"My parents had an incredibly rich cultural life together," said Kathy Siminovitch, remembering their regular trips to London to take in plays and weekly dates to see movies or go to the theatre.

Snapshots of Lou Siminovitch in his younger days. He was born and raised in Montreal and attended McGill University.
Snapshots of Lou Siminovitch in his younger days. He was born and raised in Montreal and attended McGill University. (Submitted by Kathy Siminovitch)

That legacy continues with the Siminovitch Prize in Theatre, created to honour him on his 80th birthday.

The prize is awarded to Canadian theatre artists at a mid-point in their careers.

"The people who I know who won the prize, they all were lifted by it. They worked even harder. And then they put even more creativity, more juice into what they were creating," explained Jillian Keiley, herself a Siminovitch Prize winner in 2004.

She is now the artistic director of English theatre at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.

Over the years, she says, "there's been an impact not just on the individual artists, but on the art they were making… and thus on the entire content of the art that's coming out of Canada."

'It's a great thing to be able to have a connection, great or small, with somebody who had an impact on the world,' said Jillian Keiley, pictured here speaking with Dr. Lou Siminovitch at the prize ceremony in 2017.
'It's a great thing to be able to have a connection, great or small, with somebody who had an impact on the world,' said Jillian Keiley, pictured here speaking with Dr. Lou Siminovitch at the prize ceremony in 2017. (Andrew Alexander)

Siminovitch was also a man devoted to his wife, children, and grandchildren — and to living life in balance.

Growing up, he was home at 6:00 every night, his daughter remembered, leading wide-ranging dinner conversations that ran from the latest plays her mother had read to her father's newest discovery.

Meanwhile, "my dad taught us to skate, to swim, ride a bike," she said. "He was there for us all the time."

Woodgett also recalled sitting down to dinners with him at different King Street restaurants before going to Toronto Symphony Orchestra performances together.

"He'd have a little list, a handwritten list," of things he wanted to discuss, Woodgett remembered.

"We'd go through it, and we'd always start off with the family. He was always interested.

"I think he understood fundamentally what drove people. A lot of people in biomedical research are doing it for a reason, and that's because they want to improve human health."