Pioneer in human genetics Researcher into the genetic basis of muscular dystrophy and cystic fibrosis
Lou Siminovitch was born of Eastern European parents who came to Canada in the early 1900s. From 1930 his family suffered from the Depression, which meant that they could afford very little for education and cultural activities. However, Lou Siminovitch’s parents shared a great respect for academic careers and achievements and encouraged their son to pursue education.
The teaching in Montreal schools in those years was not the best. But young Siminovitch loved mathematics and could study it by himself. Mathematics was the key subject in the entrance examinations, and he had to score high to pass the unofficial stiff standards for Jewish applicants to McGill University. Siminovitch won a scholarship that combined with an early morning paper route provided the additional money needed to pay for his schooling.
Siminovitch chose honors chemistry for his bachelor’s degree. Although he liked mathematics, his university tutor discouraged him from a math-oriented career. The tutor’s logic was that there would be few opportunities for Jews in this area.
The chemistry course was mostly instructive, and Siminovitch did not use this knowledge directly in his future research career. However, the curriculum also included natural science and language. Siminovitch took English and literature courses, which helped him in developing writing skills.
A scholarship from the National Research Council allowed Siminovitch to pursue graduate studies. This time he chose physical chemistry because of his interest in mathematics. His research project was narrow, focused on chemical warfare-oriented problems, and after graduation Siminovitch did not feel that he had yet become an expert in physical chemistry. But he had learned to carry out independent research.
Siminovitch rethought his career during his PhD years. Out of curiosity, he attended some lectures in biochemistry. He decided almost immediately that his research interests were in life sciences, but it was not easy to switch from a PhD in chemistry into a biology program. Fortunately, through a family relationship, Siminovitch knew Louis Rapkine, a remarkable French biochemist. Having learnt about Siminovitch’s concerns, Rapkine invited him to his laboratory in Paris after the war and promised to “teach him all the biochemistry and biology he had to know.”
Meanwhile, Siminovitch worked on the atomic energy project first in Ottawa and then in Chalk River. He examined the development of methodologies designed to prepare carrier-free radioactive isotopes.
In 1947, Siminovitch received a Royal Society fellowship and moved with his wife to Paris to join Louis Rapkine who set up his laboratory at the Institut Pasteur. Sadly, Louis Rapkine died from lung cancer in the next year. Siminovitch continued his training with Jacques Monod and Andre Lwoff, who also worked at the Institut Pasteur and won the Nobel Prize for Medicine later.
The study at the molecular level and regulation of viruses and cells was just beginning. Because this area was new and challenging, it attracted many scientists from different disciplines. The Monod-Lwoff laboratory happened to be at the hub of this research.
Siminovitch planned to work in Paris for two years but remained for six. In the Monod-Lwoff laboratory he found himself working closely with famous scientists. His own research was concerned with the study of bacterial viruses. But most importantly, Siminovitch learned about genetics and the value of a multi-disciplinary approach to biological problems.
Besides growing as a scientist while in Paris, Siminovitch grew up as a person. He and his wife enjoyed many cultural activities: art, theatre, music. The milieu at the Institut Pasteur also supported Siminovitch’s development: many scientists were musicians or artists.
It was difficult to leave Paris and move somewhere else or return home. Siminovitch did not feel that he was ready for independent research yet, and he was unknown to the biological community in Canada. Siminovitch and his wife decided to settle in Toronto, the city that could best offer cultural activities, which had become so important to the couple.
In 1953, Siminovitch received a National Research Council fellowship and started working at Connaught Labs in Toronto. He was free to develop his interests in mammalian cell biology, using a new technique of growing cells in vitro (in artificial conditions). There, Siminovitch met Dr. Arthur Ham, a professor of histology at the University of Toronto. In 1956, Dr. Ham invited Siminovitch to join his cancer research group at the Division of Biology at the Ontario Cancer Institute (OCI).
For the next ten years, Siminovitch worked at the OCI. He was involved in the studies of animal viruses, immunology, radiobiology, haemopoiesis (development of blood cells), and somatic cell genetics. The latter became Siminovitch’s major focus of research for the rest of his career.
Siminovitch moved to the Medical Science Building (MSB) on the University of Toronto campus to help with the development of a new department. The new position allowed him to continue his research and exercise administrative skills. In addition, his transfer strengthened the link between the OCI and the university.
In 1966, Siminovitch became the first and founding chairman of the Department of Medical Genetics, which merged the four disciplines: genetics, immunology, basic microbiology, and biophysics. In 1970, Siminovitch was named Geneticist-in-Chief at the Hospital for Sick Children (HSC).
Siminovitch worked in the MSB for twelve years, focusing his research on somatic cell genetics. During these years he also became an advisor to science bodies in Canada and the USA. He co-founded and served as an editor of several professional journals (Virology, Science Forum, Cell, Somatic Cell and Molecular Genetics, and the Journal of Molecular and Cellular Biology). These activities demanded much of Siminovitch’s time, but he regarded them as serving his community.
In 1978, at the end of his term as the department chairman, Siminovitch moved his laboratory to the HSC and focused his research on human genetics and work in the hospital. While at the HSC, he also became involved with the Mount Sinai Hospital’s Board. The Board was determined to establish an academic research institute at the hospital.
After his retirement from the HSC in 1985, Siminovitch was appointed a research director of the new Mount Sinai Hospital Research Institute, which was later renamed as the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital. As a Director, Siminovitch recruited specialists, emphasizing research in cell, molecular, and developmental biology. The institute immediately attracted many professionals and became affiliated with the University of Toronto.
Siminovitch retired as a research director in 1994 and continued as an advisor to the Rotman Research Institute at the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care and the Loeb Research Institute in Ottawa. In addition, he has been involved with the boards and scientific advisory panels of several health research enterprises.
“Louis Siminovitch: Killam 1991 Laureate” In celebration of Canadian scientists: a decade of Killam laureates Ed. Kenney-Wallace, G.A., MacLeod, M.G., Stanton, R.G.
Image: The Gairdner Foundation