Kamloops doctor was part of team that fought to eradicate smallpox

·5 min read

Kate Zahir will miss her father’s humble spirit.

“He was truly a gentleman in all its facets,” Kate told KTW.

Her father, Max Zahir, died on March 20, 2021, at the age of 84.

The retired chief pathologist for Royal Inland Hospital called Kamloops home for decades and recently spoke with KTW about his time in Pakistan in the 1960s, aiding the vaccination effort against smallpox.

He was an adventurous man, Kate said, recalling a trip she took with her mother and father when she was 15, visiting the places where he grew up and went to medical school.

Kate had hoped to make the trip one last time before he passed away, but is comforted by the fact she was able to be by his side and visit her father’s roots at least once.

Looking back on his life, Kate said his desire for knowledge stands out.

“He was the epitome of a lifelong learner,” she said.

Zahir was a self-professed logophile and keen admirer of the English language. During his retirement, one of his projects focused on reading all of Shakespeare’s works.

Born in Ludhiana, Punjab, India on Nov. 27, 1936, Zahir was witness to one of the most violent upheavals in human history during the 1947 partitioning of India and Pakistan. Feeling it would be safer, the family went to Pakistan after India declared independence from the British.

Not wanting to remain silent on this tumultuous time in history, Zahir wrote a book during his retirement, called 1947: A Memoir of Indian Independence, to further education on the subject.

In the first half of his life, Zahir moved around a lot, living in India, Pakistan, England, the United States and, finally, Canada, where he would settle in Kamloops.

He is survived by his wife. Maureen, of 56 years, his three children — Sara (Joseph), David and Kate (Pierre) — and five grandchildren: Alyssa, Kathryn, Nicholas, Max and Dante.

As a young man, Zahir attended Oxford University in England in 1959 on a Rhodes scholarship, completing a doctorate in infectious diseases in three years.

He then spent three years training in clinical pathology.

The University of Maryland’s medical school recruited him in 1966 as part of a group of doctors who were to work on the eradication of smallpox in his homeland of Pakistan, where the infectious disease was still endemic.

Zahir made a few trips into the rural villages to administer the vaccine, but his primary position was studying the disease in the city of Lahore at the Pakistan Medical Research centre (PMRC), which was funded in part by the U.S. government and the World Health Organization.

In Lahore, Zahir was put in charge of a lab at the PMRC.

His main focus was determining why some severe cases of smallpox developed blood-filled blisters rather than pus-filled ones — an answer he found and on which he published his findings.

Smallpox would be declared eradicated worldwide by 1980.

Zahir — who had returned to his home country in part to be close to his aging parents — wanted to stay longer, but after a year, the University of Maryland offered him a job as a full-time faculty member at the Baltimore university.

The family spent four years in the U.S. city before Zahir desired a change of pace, wanting to work as a pathologist in a community hospital.

The plan was to move to B.C., with which Maureen was familiar, having worked there previously as a nurse.

However, the province wasn’t granting licences to non-Canadian specialists at the time. Such licences were being granted in New Brunswick, so the Zahirs spent two years in the Maritimes before Max applied for a job in Kamloops in the early 1970s.

Zahir spent decades as a pathologist at Royal Inland Hospital before retiring in 2003.

He experienced many career highlights as a pathologist/hematologist, including his involvement with the British Columbia Medical Association.

He and Maureen moved to Victoria for a time, but returned to Kamloops five years ago to be closer to family.

Zahir had been living at the Berwick on the Park retirement home in Sahali prior to his death.

During his life, Zahir was also an active Rotarian, studied the impending impacts of the burgeoning climate crisis and was known to engage in heated matches at the Kamloops Tennis Centre.

Animated discussions with children and grandchildren were memorable and held most dear, while summer evenings at the family cottage on Shuswap Lake and winter mornings at the condo at Tod Mountain breathed life into his soul, Kate said.

She said her father touched the hearts of many people because he was very modest despite his achievements.

“He would always say, ‘Ask others more questions then they ask of you,’” Kate said of her father’s uncanny ability to listen.

She said her father’s death last month was sudden and unexpected.

“It was incredibly rapid. Nobody was expecting it,” Kate said.

Zahir opted to admit himself to hospital after feeling short of breath — thinking it might be a mild case of COVID-19, having had his first dose of the vaccine.

Several days later, tests revealed he had cancer, Kate said.

“He was so sick towards the end they couldn’t even conduct the tests properly because he was so weak,” she said.

His death came on the first day of spring — a day known for rebirth, which was a fitting bit of symbolism for Zahir.

“It was the end for him, it was the beginning of spring,” Kate said. “Everything for him had meaning in life, including his death.”

Michael Potestio, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Kamloops This Week