George Connell lighter

Professor George Connell

The recent passing of Professor George Connell, Biochemist, Department Chair, University President, colleague and friend who touched so many in his life has brought an outpouring of memorials. Below are tributes from the President of the University of Toronto and long-time friends and colleagues David Tinker and Robert Murray.

Professor Meric S. Gertler, President, University of Toronto
With the passing of Professor George Connell, the University’s 12th president (1984-1990), the University of Toronto community has lost a great leader, scientist, colleague, and friend.

George Connell spent most of his academic career at the University of Toronto, starting with his undergraduate and graduate degrees, and continuing as a faculty member in the Department of Biochemistry. He was an outstanding researcher and teacher, and a skilled administrator who went on to serve as Chair of the Department of Biochemistry, Associate Dean of Medicine, and Vice-President of Research and Planning. Recognized for his talent and accomplishments, he was appointed President of the University of Western Ontario in 1977, a position he held until returning to his alma mater as President in 1984.

Professor Connell was an outstanding champion of U of T, whose presidency cemented our position as one of the world’s great universities. Through the process that led to his landmark paper, Renewal 1987, he rallied the University community to a vision of excellence that guides us still. He also initiated the precedent-setting Breakthrough fundraising campaign, established the Academic Board, which has been a key factor in the success of the University’s unicameral governance, and re-set the direction of the University’s tri-campus system.

With his rare gifts of analysis and foresight, Professor Connell also shaped public policy in Ontario and Canada. While at Western, he was a member of the Fisher Committee on the future of the province’s universities. After his presidency at U of T, he was appointed principal advisor to the Royal Commission of Inquiry on the Blood System in Canada (the Krever Inquiry). Thereafter, his advice on higher education and advanced research was frequently sought by governments, institutions, and leaders – not least his successors as U of T presidents.

George Connell received many awards and distinctions in the course of his brilliant career, in recognition of his service and achievements. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, he was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1987.

A bust of George Connell, along with those of nine other giants of biomedical science, holds pride of place in the Terrence Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research. He will be remembered not only for his scholarship and leadership, but also for his enormous integrity and decency, and the wise counsel he gave so generously to so many.

On behalf of the entire University of Toronto community, I extend condolences to Professor Connell’s wife, Sheila, their children, James, Thomas, Caroline, and Margaret (Meg), and their families.

Professor Emeritus David Tinker
The passing of George Connell was a personal shock and an occasion of great sadness for those who were privileged to know him. Rather than repeat the highlights of his distinguished career, I would like to reflect on what he meant to me first as a budding and now an antiquated biochemist. I first encountered George as a fourth year student in the then Honours Course in Physiology and Biochemistry, when I worked on an honours project in his laboratory. At that time he was working on the structure and allelic variation of human haptoglobin, in collaboration with Oliver Smithies. A key analytical tool was starch gel electrophoresis, which involved a series of somewhat dangerous steps! George personally demonstrated these to me, explained how the gel had a certain “feel” at the exact moment it was ready to be poured into a slab, and dryly noted that explosion of the vacuum flask containing the hot starch solution was always a “memorable” occasion. I am sure he thought I was a walking disaster, but he was invariably kind and trusted me to learn by making mistakes.

Charles Hanes was the Chair in those days, another pioneer of our discipline who is probably unknown to the new generation, and when George succeeded him he took over the Department at a time of rapid growth. I was one of those he hired in 1966, along with a whole generation of young biochemists. It can truly be said that George laid the foundation for the great institution that it has become. Those of us who came in those early days remember it as a wonderfully happy place to work, a real family. George and Sheila used to host picnics at their beautiful cottage on Lake Simcoe. He was a keen sailor and loved to be on the water in his Albacore sailboat. One of the high points of the era was certainly the Federation meeting at Edmonton in 1969, when an impromptu party of the Toronto contingent was held in the student residence. George had a rental car, and he and I went out to fetch “provisions” at the Alberta Liquor outlet. George insisted we buy a gigantic bottle of Johnny Walker Scotch, which was duly consumed at the party! I still have a large menu purloined from a certain Edmonton restaurant which was signed by all the colossally inebriated attendees, a unique memento of a wonderful group of graduate students and young faculty.

I think Canadian Biochemistry “came of age” at the 11th International Congress in 1979, an event which George spearheaded. It was largely due to his persuasive powers that Toronto secured this major international meeting. His diplomacy was in evidence at several moments of crisis at the time, including the “delicate” relations between the People’s Republic of China representatives and the Taiwan delegation. When he returned to Toronto as President in 1984 one of the major changes that took place under his leadership was the establishment of the Academic Board. I was elected to the first Academic Board, and for the next five years was again a witness to George’s quiet diplomacy in steering the university through waters which could have been stormy and dangerous. President Prichard remarked in his tribute that George laid the foundation for the modern University of Toronto, as he had done for his department. I saw it happen, and I agree.

What I remember most about the man was his steadiness, his kindness, his wry little smile and the twinkle in his eyes which was always close to the surface, his quiet voice, and the calm authority he radiated. He was a mentor to me and to many others, and I think he was one of the wisest persons I have ever known. It’s hard to imagine a world without him.

george-connell-1986 colour

George Connell 1986

Professor Emeritus Robert Murray
I remember being interviewed in 1958 by Professor Arthur Wynne, at that time the Chairman of the Department. He indicated that I should start my graduate studies with a young staff member, George Connell, who he told me was going to go far in the field. Thus, I was lucky to become the first of George’s many PhD students. The late Ralph Shaw, who shared George’s lab with me, was his first Master’s student. Vaika, George’s technician, was also very active in the lab. Just along the hall in the old Medical Science Building, Byron Lane and Karl Freeman were finishing up their PhD studies with Dr Gordon Butler. The focus of George’s lab at that time was the plasma protein haptoglobin. George himself was working with Oliver Smithies and Gordon Dixon on its structure, in one of the most productive collaborations ever in Canadian biochemistry. Every day one of us in George’s lab was running a starch gel, then waiting impatiently for it to de-stain so the results could be seen. I was always amazed that George himself could be simultaneously running a starch gel, operating the analytical ultracentrifuge, talking to someone at the Medical Research Council in Ottawa about scientific matters, and arranging a game of squash with a friend.

At that time it seemed to me that there was nothing that George did not know, whether it concerned biochemistry, general science, Canadian history or whatever. I found him to be a wise and gentle advisor; I do not remember a harsh criticism from him at any stage in my career, although doubtless many were deserved. He also took an interest in his students as individuals. For instance, I remember him coming to watch a Rugby game in which I was playing.

He was very successful as Departmental Chairman, and thus it was not surprising that he rapidly ascended the academic tree. I remember a group of Biochemistry members going down to London, ON for his inauguration as President of UWO. We were all proud to have been associated with him. And again it was no surprise when he was recalled to Toronto as President. Current President Meric Gertler has commented on his many achievements as President at UofT.

George was always very sociable, and I remember attending various highly enjoyable occasions at which he was present. These gave my wife Jean and I a chance to meet his wife Sheila, who was always most gracious and kind, and also various members of his family. I admired very much the way that Sheila and the family supported George through his final years.

George, I feel very lucky to have known you. You are one of the people that I have most admired and respected. You were both a gentle man and a gentleman. It was a privilege to be your student, your colleague and your friend. God bless always !