Medicine

Attended KCSS • 1961–1963

Inducted October 2007

Harold

Robertson

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Working for better mental health of mankind

I made my greatest academic bargain at KCCS in 1961-62. On the condition that I promised not to take grade 13 Latin, Dr. Ivanofsky guaranteed me 50% in grade 12 Latin no matter how I badly I did on the exam. I accepted. Years later, when I could have used it, I was sorry about not working harder at Latin. I realized that the time had come to try something else and left high school after grade 12. I decided that I would see the world and worry about academics later. So I joined the military, finished grade 13 in the army and somehow ended up at the Royal Military College Royal Roads. After 2 years, it was clear that a military career wasn’t what the right thing either so I went on to the University of Western Ontario, with vague ideas about doing biology. I graduated and, after one year teaching science at Walkerton High School, I enrolled in a M. Sc. in zoology at Western. Suddenly, I discovered that I had flare for biology and did well. Still eager to see the world, I was admitted to Clare College at the University of Cambridge in England and finished my Ph.D. there.

My work on chemicals in insect brain led me to an interest in the same chemicals in humans, and especially in a chemical called dopamine, a possible cause of schizophrenia. I returned to Canada and joined the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Saskatchewan. After 2 years I took a position at the University of Oxford and then moved to the Max-Planck-Institute in Göttingen, Germany. Finally, in 1978, Dalhousie University in Halifax offered me the chance to become Assistant Professor of Pharmacology. I ended up as the Head of the Department and the Carnegie and Rockefeller Professor of Pharmacology (1995-2005). I also became a full Professor in Medicine (Neurology) and Psychology on the basis of my work in Parkinson’s disease. I assembled a team to find treatments for this devastating movement disorder and this has grown into the Brain Repair Centre at Dalhousie University and the Capital District Health Centre. Our team also carried out the first neural transplantations for Parkinson’s disease in Canada. Our program remains the only transplantation program in Canada, though there are similar programs in the UK, Sweden, France and the US. In 2007, we are still working on finding a cure for this debilitating disorder.

At both Dr. Williams, and then at KCCS, I learned the importance of a neat appearance and politeness. At KCCS I also learned how to write, thanks especially to Duncan Fidler and Ken Nicholls. After being told all my life that mathematics was the language of science, I realized a few years ago that I had been misled by generations of math teachers. There is no doubt that mathematics is important for science but English, not mathematics is the language of science. I am most grateful to KCCS and Williams for the languages. Thanks to grade 10 German, I was able to function as a post-doctoral fellow at the Max-Planck-Institute in Germany. Thanks to the high school French that learned, I have been able to review doctoral theses at Laval University. Even some of the Latin from Dr. Ivanovsky managed to stick and that has stood me in very good stead. I should be retiring soon but I am just starting a major project on early diagnosis for Parkinson’s disease that should take me about 10 years to complete! By then I hope we will have a treatment for this disease that will halt its progression. I have truly been privileged in the career I chose. My advice: find a career where you look forward to Monday morning! If it starts to feel like work, re-consider your choice. If they pay you for it, so much the better.

After 30 years at Dalhousie, I split my time now between Halifax, Nova Scotia where I am Director of Research at the Brain Repair Centre and our farm on Prince Edward Island. My wife Elizabeth Townsend is also a Professor at Dalhousie University and Director of Occupational Therapy and we are looking forward to many post-retirement projects. Daughter Jean teaches in Halifax and lives with our grand-dog Abbie. Our son Kelvin works in Saskatoon.

Written October 2007

 

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