Jan 2011

A tribute to Ernest McCulloch (1926-2011)

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The first time I met Dr. Ernest Armstrong “Bun” McCulloch in 2004 he looked every inch the professor emeritus in a slightly rumpled tweed jacket worn over a white shirt, an Order of Canada pin tucked in his lapel.  He was, by turns, charming, irascible, wonderfully patient,  intellectually intimidating and not a little bit puzzling. 

We talked in his cluttered office at Princess Margaret Hospital, amid his books and papers.  A small man, though not thin, he had a hawk-like  presence, as if he was watching over the interview, letting moments of silence pass while I scribbled answers and he waited to pounce on an idea that struck his interest.

And what interests. Conversing as easily about Shakespeare as stem cells, he seemed to care as much about literature as the leukemia research he so passionately pursued throughout his career. He had opinions on everything from hockey (he didn’t see the point of it) to religion (couldn’t imagine a god with narrow views about right and wrong) to renewable energy sources (felt the world must stop using fossil fuels). He was, as the people in Boston like to say, wicked smart.

In the fall, when I last saw Doctor McCulloch (he was always doctor to me; I did not feel comfortable with the pet name Bun that his colleagues delighted in using)  he was sitting on the bed of his Bloor Street retirement suite where he and his wife Ona had moved after their health began to betray them.  He had been napping but was happy to talk about any subject at hand, from family history (illustrated by references to the portraits on the wall)  to Anthony Trollope’s novels. Now a frail man who had difficulty walking, he could still run mental circles around most ordinary mortals without breaking a sweat. He did, however, tire  easily. After about a half an hour, it was time to go.

The news of his death shouldn’t have stunned me, but it did. Even in his weakened physical condition, he was of a force, a presence.

He has certainly been a presence in my life this past year as I worked to capture the essence of the man for a book about him and his long-time partner and friend, Dr. James Edgar Till, and their discovery of stem cells. Over the year, I have interviewed well over 50 people on the subject of Ernest McCulloch and have been fascinated by the admiration they felt for him. I talked to people – very, very smart people – who crossed oceans for the opportunity to work with him at the Ontario Cancer Institute. I listened to researchers say they would take a bullet for the man, that he was like a father to them, that he had shown faith in them when others had scoffed at work that would later prove to be ground-breaking. Not surprising, then, he inspired a sense of loyalty from those who worked with him that was no less impressive than his staggering intellect.

He was, they said, as out-of-the-box a thinker as ever put on a lab coat. He had more ideas in a day than most people could come up with in a year.  Some of them he abandoned moments after he expressed them. Others became the basis of important discoveries. He saw connections no one else could make. He knew, one leading cancer researcher explained, exactly the right question to ask, exactly the right experiment to do next, exactly how to move the science forward.

He did not, I was told, suffer fools gladly. He could forget to say thank you. He would chew on a stick of chalk while figuring out complicated questions. He could drop arcane references into scientific arguments, befuddling his listeners and making them wonder if he was serious or just having them on. He was, to many, an enigma wrapped in a cardigan.

He was kind. He warmly welcomed colleagues to his cottage. A private-school boy who came from Old Toronto privilege, he felt immigration was the best thing that ever happened to his city, transforming it from a mean-spirited narrow-view town to a cosmopolitan centre.  He  liked martinis. He adored his wife, Ona.

He was, quite simply, an amazing human being with an astounding intellectual sparkle. To talk to McCulloch was to be in the presence of genius.

By Joe Sornberger, Friend of the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation and Author of a 50th anniversary commemorative book to be released later this year on Till & McCulloch and the impact of their discovery.

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