By Doug Sweet
In the middle of a week that was supposed to be full of life and all about the promise of the future, a sudden death rocked the McGill and McGill University Health Centre community.
Dr. David R. Colman, 62, who had led the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital since September 2002, died unexpectedly Wednesday morning at the Montreal General Hospital, where he was being treated for chronic health issues.
Colman, described as a visionary who was dedicated to legendary neuroscientist Wilder Penfield’s original plan of an integrated clinical and research facility, was thought to be on the mend. Instead, he took a sudden turn for the worse, leaving behind his wife Liz and daughters Monica and Miranda.
“We are shocked and saddened by this devastating news,” said McGill Principal and Vice-Chancellor Heather Munroe-Blum and MUHC Director General and CEO Arthur T. Porter. “Our deepest sympathies go out to Dr. Colman’s family and The Neuro community at this most difficult time. We know he will be deeply missed by all whose lives he touched.”
Details of funeral and memorial service arrangements will be forthcoming.
Under Colman’s leadership, The Neuro launched a $40-million capital campaign and was named one of the first Canadian National Centres of Excellence in Research and Commercialization.
At the same time, this leading researcher was an approachable, self-deprecating man, who was fiercely proud of the venerable institution he led.
“We are the Cirque du Soleil of science — absolutely unique in the world,” he told the McGill Reporter in an interview published in October 2009. “We are daring, innovative and unafraid of risk or failure.”
Colman approached science with a strong conviction in basic, curiosity-driven research and believed in tackling problems from every angle. This commitment led to the multidisciplinary Neuroengineering Program at McGill and innovative programs in Neuropalliative Care as well as a major expansion in brain imaging at The Neuro.
In the early stages of his career, he wanted to find out how the brain works, basically how nerve cells communicate with each other. This communication is based on the transmission of signals through nerve axons and depends on an insulating myelin sheath. This led him to explore myelination, spinal cord injury and nerve cell development and regeneration.
Colman’s laboratory made major contributions to our understanding of how nerves are protected and nurtured by the myelin sheath in the brain and in the peripheral nervous system, and how nerve cells communicate with each other across the synapse. He was on the editorial boards of Neuron and Molecular and Cellular Neuroscience, authored more than 110 scientific publications in top-tier scientific journals such as Science, Nature, Cell and Neuron and was a member of the Medical Advisory Board for The Gairdner Foundation.
Colman received his Bachelor of Science (Biology) with minor concentrations in English and Geology from New York University (NYU) in 1970, and his PhD in Neuroscience from the State University of New York in 1977.
After completing post-doctoral training, he became an assistant professor of cell biology at NYU School of Medicine. In 1987, he joined The Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons as an associate professor of cell biology, where he received several awards, including an Irma T. Hirschl Career Development Award, the Basmajian Award for Teaching and Research, as well as a Jacob K. Javits Neuroscience Award from the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke.
In 1993, Colman moved to the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, where he was the Annenberg Professor of Molecular Biology and Neuroscience, the Vice-Chairman for Research in the Department of Neurology, and the Scientific Director of The Corinne Goldsmith Dickinson Center for Multiple Sclerosis of The Mount Sinai School of Medicine. In 2002, he was recruited to Montreal, where he served as Director of The Neuro, the Wilder Penfield Professor of Neuroscience at McGill University and a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Neuroscience.