Oct 2011

Meet Joe Sornberger

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We’ve shared a great deal with you about the book Dreams & Due Diligence: Till & McCulloch’s Stem Cell Discovery & Legacy over the last several months. But you may not have had a chance to find out about the book’s author: Joe Sornberger.

Joe has written extensive on the topic of stem cell science — he’s as knowledgeable as he is passionate. We posed a few questions to Joe so you could get to know him a bit better. Here are a few of his thoughts.

What is the most important message you want readers to take away from Dreams & Due Diligence?

“The thing that I’m probably most passionate about is to simply get the story out. The discovery of stem cells by two Canadian researchers is something that should be as familiar as the Banting and Best breakthrough — but somehow isn’t. To me, that is a huge oversight. I want people — Canadians particularly — to be proud of this. We celebrate our hockey players and performing artists but tend to give short shrift to our outstanding scientists whose work saves lives.”

This is very much the untold story of the discovery of stem cells. What surprised you most?

“The major surprise was how remarkably different Till and McCulloch were in every possible way. They were polar opposites, with different approaches to work, entirely different histories, different tastes and vastly different attitudes. They were fated to be either the best of friends or the worst of enemies. Turns out it was the former. It was a case of one person having the qualities that the other lacked — and each person realizing that. The whole truly was greater than the sum of the parts.

“The other big surprise was how keen people were to talk about Till and McCulloch. When I mentioned their names and said that I was doing a book about them, doors suddenly opened, telephone messages were quickly returned and emails were rapidly replied to. Some of the biggest brains in the medical science business took the time to talk. Tak Mak — easily one of the most important cancer researchers in the world — chatted to me for well over an hour. John Dick, who will have books written about him someday soon, shared large chunks of his time. Connie Eaves put herself at my disposal and gave marvellously thoughtful, insightful answers. Irving Weissman at Stanford was extremely helpful. So was Sir John Bell at Oxford. The upshot is: Till and McCulloch are held in very high regard in the medical science community.”

What was the single best moment you had while interviewing the many people you reached out to?

“I can’t limit it to one. One of the early high points was when I received a handwritten note from Dr. McCulloch, who was very frail and in failing health, agreeing to do interviews for the book. I knew he was not well and I had faced the prospect of taking on the project without being able to talk to him. So it was a great moment when he agreed to participate. My other great McCulloch moment came when I interviewed him at his bedside in the nursing home a couple of months before his death. We were chatting and he said something to the effect of: ‘I hope you’re not going to make too big a thing about this. Don’t mythologize us.’ His point, I think was that he and Dr. Till were just two guys working away at something they loved and felt passionate about.

“My other high point occurred at the U of T Archives. I was there with Dr. Till and we were frustrated because we couldn’t find the prep notes from the original 1961 discovery. He was pretty sure he and Dr. McCulloch had tossed them out. When I looked disappointed Dr. Till, this great man who really ought to have a Nobel Prize on his bookshelf, actually apologized, saying, ‘At the time, you don’t think you’re going to be doing anything historic.’

“One other high point. I needed to get a sense of Dr. McCulloch’s impact on Princess Margaret Hospital’s pioneering bone marrow transplantation program. Dr. Hans Messner, who McCulloch recruited right out of school from Germany and eventually ran the program, set it all out for me, explaining exactly how McCulloch created it and drove it. That program has saved something like 2,000 lives. And McCulloch made it happen.”

“Sornberger’s crackling, personal and insightful narrative successfully captures their individual characters, their contribution and its reverberations today. A wonderful read for those interested in understanding the beginnings of this most exciting and promising field of biomedical science.”

~ Norman N. Iscove, Senior Scientist, The Ontario Cancer Institute,
University Health Network, and Professor, Departments of
Medical Biophysics and Immunology, University of Toronto

Joe has written a beautiful book about an important Canadian story. We hope you’ll make time to read it soon.

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