David Colman, 1949-2011

July 14, 2011

A "polymath-in-chief" and internationally acclaimed expert on spinal injury and nerve cell development has died.

David Colman was born in New York City on 4 January 1949. He studied for his first degree at New York University and then completed a PhD in neuroscience at the State University of New York's Heath Sciences Center in Brooklyn.

Postdoctoral training led to a job as assistant professor of cell biology at the New York University School of Medicine, followed by a position with the same title at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.

After accolades including a Jacob K. Javits Neuroscience Investigator Award from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, Dr Colman was appointed to a full professorship in 1993 as the first Annenberg professor of molecular biology and neuroscience at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.

But in September 2002, he crossed the border to Montreal, becoming the Wilder Penfield professor of neuroscience at McGill University as well as director of the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital, a world-leading institution popularly known as "The Neuro".

In his research career, Professor Colman started with a fundamental curiosity about communication systems within the brain, which led to a focus on the myelin sheaths around nerve axons and the development and regeneration of nerve cells. He published more than 100 articles in major journals and served on the editorial boards of Neuron and Molecular and Cellular Neuroscience.

After taking over at The Neuro, Professor Colman soon stamped his mark on an institution he once described as "absolutely unique in the world".

In one of the first of the Director's Corner columns he contributed to its newsletter, he cited George Santayana's advice to academics: "Don't be safe, be brilliant."

Such a philosophy was reflected in Professor Colman's intense commitment to integrating clinical work and research, including research of the most fundamental kind, and to developing new programmes in neuroengineering and neuropalliative care.

All this was supported by an energetic fundraising campaign that gained The Neuro a national designation as a Centre of Excellence in Commercialization and Research.

Professor Colman died on 1 June after an extended illness and is survived by his wife Liz and daughters Monica and Miranda. In a memorial tribute by Heather Munroe-Blum, principal and vice-chancellor of McGill, he was acclaimed as a "polymath-in-chief" and "an iconoclastic thinker" whose "greatest joy (was) to provoke and foster the curiosity of others, and to awaken in them the excitement of the brain and scientific discovery".


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