Kate Johnson's Medical Musings

Life through the eyes of a medical journalist

Director’s Corner: A Beautiful Brain – in Memory of David R. Colman (1949 – 2011).

June 2011

                       Dr. Colman was the Director of the Montreal Neurological Institute.

Last June I sat in David Colman’s office – having accepted his invitation for a private tour of  “the Neuro”.

Had I known he had less than a year to live, how much longer I would have lingered!

There was so much more I had hoped to learn from him, so much more he had to give – not just to the world of science and medicine – that loss is inestimable – but also to the world of writing and philosophy.

Dr. Colman’s unexpected death this month has left a surprising emptiness in me – I only ever met the man once. But his monthly blog musings (Director’s Corner, which he called his “monthly opportunity to vent”), and our occasional e-mail exchanges gave me insight and inspiration, as I’m sure they did for many.

A busy agenda had been arranged for me that day at the Neuro – yet our conversation was unhurried, drifting easily from current affairs, to the new iPad, to multiple sclerosis and myelin. He scribbled diagrams on my notepad, explaining the complexities of his research on cancer metastasis, and finally, as I moved reluctantly towards the door, photos of his daughters, one of them the same age as my own, turned our conversation to parenting.

Our “friendship”, if I can call it that, first started when he contacted me about an Op-ed piece I had published in the Montreal Gazette. We seemed to see eye-to-eye on the subject and I think we both recognized in each other a certain daring.

A month or so later, in consulting him about a brain tumor story I was researching, he humbly confessed to aggressively working on “halting cancer cell metastasis”. The research, he said, had produced great results “that are apparently unpublishable because they are highly anti-current dogma and therefore threatening”. “The data are incontrovertible,” he told me. “We have a means to arrest the migration of tumor cells.”

Intrigued, I asked him to send me a version of his until-then rejected paper – which he did, complete with deliciously sarcastic comments to the reviewers!

I struggled over what to say to him – it was a brilliant paper – “Perhaps a little too long?” I ventured meekly.  “Problem is of course, the more the bastards suggested, the more we wrote!” he retorted.

Last November he emailed to say that the paper had finally been accepted  – it was his penultimate publication (Neoplasia. 2010 Dec;12(12):1066-80).

In reading Dr. Colman’s blogs and listening to his lectures it is hard to miss the fact that one of his favorite words was “serendipity”. He delighted in the seemingly chance discovery, the detour that produced a Eureka moment. He had the stories to illustrate such miracles: how messing with colours of petunias had led to research on gene quieting, or how observations of butterfly wings led to the development of Rhogam (an injectable antibody for Rh disease).

He quoted Louis Pasteur: “Chance favors the prepared mind”, and wrote “we must also teach how to prepare the mind to accept the unexpected discovery, because most often, serendipity provides the real breakthroughs”.

He believed that important discoveries and insightful observations could be around any corner – especially when you weren’t looking for them – which is why, I believe, his blogs were refreshingly sprinkled with odds and ends from every spectrum of science and art, from astronomy, to Greek mythology, to plant biology or literature or cetaceans.

And his stories are so endearing, and enduring, because he served them up with such a generous portion of his own experiences. There’s the one about that “blistering August day in 1959, the kind of day when New York City asphalt turns to taffy and the air is Africa hot..” – a 10-year-old David Colman takes refuge with his buddies in an air-conditioned movie theatre. Although “Monsters from Outer Space” was the feature that day, it was the opening newsreel of Dr. Wilder Penfield, the first director of the Montreal Neurological Institute, that captured his imagination with an account of one of his first epilepsy surgeries:

“For the only time that day in the darkened Alpine Theatre, I felt shivers travel along my spine –             not from the air conditioning nor from the monsters from outer space, but from that short                         newsreel segment about the cheerful doctor and his grateful patient. I never forgot it.

And at least for one impressionable ten-year-old boy, it started mental wheels spinning in the                   sudden realization that real science – and especially uncovering the mysteries of how the brain                 works – was so much more thrilling than science fiction.”

How fitting that Dr. Colman eventually became the Wilder Penfield Professor of Neuroscience at the Neuro, bringing along with his scientific expertise, his gift for story-telling and communication. This distinguished professor believed in communicating science to non-scientists. He wrote that “the jargon that scientists use so as to precisely communicate with each other, puts a wall between us and the public…With a little effort, it can be ‘translated’ so that all of us can comprehend the value of what we as neuroscientists study.”

To this end, he reached out to the public and to the media, and selected a skilled team of writer scientists for his communications department. He used popular language and familiar references. He quoted Joni Mitchell in explaining astronomy and supernovae; he quoted Sherlock Holmes in explaining the logic of evolution; and he quoted the Bible in describing a government grant to the Neuro as “manna from heaven”. To the latter he included the gift of his great humour: “There are limits to the analogy, and I have not lost my perspective – I do know that there are still some differences between Heaven and the government of Canada,” he wrote.

Though he wasn’t a medical doctor, Dr. Colman, like Dr. Penfield before him, believed strongly that medical research and clinical care should remain inseparably intertwined. His work in the lab did not distance him from the human story. “Somehow the most poignant deaths of my friends have been from very aggressive brain tumours,” he wrote. He empathized with impatient, frustrated patients who turn desperately to unproven, potentially dangerous measures for  “miracle” cures. “Who are we to kill new hopes by being thuddingly, dispassionately rational while they are suffering so?” he asked.

In his opening remarks at the Neuro’s 75th anniversary symposium in 2009 Dr. Colman spoke of the legacy left by the institution’s previous leaders without realizing he would soon be among them.

“What has happened so far over these 75 years is only our beginning, the simple prologue to what-is-now-the-unimaginable, the amazing, the astounding progress that will undoubtedly emerge as a result of The Neuro’s efforts over the course of this century.”

He had a vision that “we will finally learn how to harness the healing potential of the nervous system to prevent and cure neurological disease by the end of his century”.

Energy never dies. That energy that David Colman generated in his lifetime will continue to fuel his vision. Like the supernova he once wrote so passionately about. A supernova is the death of a massive star, generating brilliant energy that feeds future generations of stars and planets:

In a fraction of a second, the star’s core collapsed, generating an immeasurable amount of                         unsustainable heat and pressure. A massive explosion followed, heralded first by a very short-                 lived searing X-ray flash (termed the “shock breakout”), before giving way to brilliant light in the             visible range that waxed and then waned over the next several days…The explosion blew stellar                 debris outward at tens of thousands of kilometers a second, hurling the contents of the core across           NGC 2770, scattering the atoms synthesized inside the star during it’s lifetime, and importantly,               the heavy elements that can be created only in the enormous heat and pressure following the                     shock breakout.

“We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion year old carbon,” according to Joni Mitchell. “And I feel to be a cog in something turning”.

The continuity is comforting.

But what about Director’s Corner – posted faithfully every month for the past seven-and-a-half years? The June 2011 entry never went up, and I feel sure that would bother him. So, here it is. Maybe someone else could write July’s?

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June 11, 2011 - Posted by | Medical Writing, Neurology | ,

1 Comment »

  1. A fitting tribute. Lovely balance of facts and feeling – not always easy to finesse.
    Dave knew how to combine the two well, didn’t he?
    They don’t make generalists like him anymore, sad to say.

    Comment by Louise Fabiani | June 14, 2011 | Reply


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