Commentary: Celebrating Sanwal’s amazing legacy

The field of biochemistry has changed dramatically over the past 65 years. One person who has not only witnessed this change but also contributed to the change is Dr. Bishnu (Bill) Sanwal.

Sanwal came to Western in 1973 to serve as Chair of the Department of Biochemistry, a position he held until 1983. He became Professor Emeritus in 1992, but remained tremendously active as evident from his resuming the Chair position from 1993-95. To this day Sanwal is recognized nationally and internationally and is still regularly seen on the third floor of the Medical Sciences Building chatting with students and faculty during afternoon coffee, before a couple of more hours of work in his office.

The story of Sanwal’s arrival at Western is fascinating, as his path took him to the hubs of the emerging field of molecular biology where he interacted with many of the scientists who are now known as the pioneers of the field. These interactions dramatically influenced his view of science and, in turn, the evolution of the discipline at Western.

Around the time of the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953, in what Sanwal terms the ‘classical era,’ he was a science student at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. It was, as Sanwal describes, a meeting necessitated by two failures of an oral exam given by Wolfgang Pauli, the Nobel Laureate in Physics, that led him away from physics and towards biology. Within three years of this encounter, Sanwal completed a dissertation in plant pathology and then began working in Switzerland.

In October 2015, Western’s Department of Biochemistry recognized the contributions of Drs. Bishnu (Bill) Sanwal, right, and Ted Lo by naming the Bishnu Sanwal and Theodore Lo Graduate Endowment Fund in their honour.

Special to Western NewsIn October 2015, Western’s Department of Biochemistry recognized the contributions of Drs. Bishnu (Bill) Sanwal, right, and Ted Lo by naming the Bishnu Sanwal and Theodore Lo Graduate Endowment Fund in their honour.

However, Sanwal, always known as a voracious reader, was keeping abreast of the emerging field of molecular biology. Enticed by the possibilities, he gave up his career working on ‘tomato wilt’ and moved straight to the epicentre of the action by obtaining a position in the Microbiology Department at Cambridge University. He was not in Cambridge long when a chance dinner meeting, which included “some fancy port” with the visiting Dean of Medicine from the University of Manitoba, resulted in a job offer and a move to Canada.

Sanwal’s relationship with the Dean of Medicine in Manitoba had a major impact on his career.

Sanwal worked out a deal whereby he could take an unpaid leave at any time, under the condition he would return to Winnipeg. His first trip in 1961 led him to the Microbiology Department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), under the direction of the famed microbiologist Boris Magasanik and chaired by the Nobel Laureate Salvador Luria. While at MIT, Sanwal caught up on bacterial physiology and, most importantly, expanded his biochemistry toolbox by learning how to purify enzymes.

After a brief return to Winnipeg, Sanwal was off again, this time to the newly founded Department of Biology at the University of California-San Diego, headed by David Bonner. In San Diego, Sanwal enhanced his genetics training.

Upon returning to Winnipeg and with these powerful tools in hand, Sanwal and his group of talented graduate students published numerous original contributions, which garnered international attention. Included amongst the individuals was another Nobel Laureate, the Pasteur Institute’s Jacques Monod. This resulted in a phone call from Monod who asked Sanwal if he was interested in working in Paris. So, in 1966, Sanwal went off to Paris. He describes his time at the Pasteur Institute as the most inspired and when he learned how science should be done with “no doors anywhere and science discussed openly.” The French cuisine and fantastic science led many other visitors, including the Nobel Laureate Sidney Brenner, to the Pasteur Institute for extended weekend meetings.

Sanwal’s fondness for Paris never wore off, but in 1968, Lou Siminovitch was recruiting for the newly founded Department of Medical Genetics and Cell Biology at the University of Toronto. Monod recommended Sanwal to Siminovitch. Sanwal and his wife, Madhu, debated whether to return, but the financial incentives were significant. Sanwal spent five years in Toronto. As before, his group’s productivity was exceptional, but he longed for the chance to recreate the open research environment that he discovered in Paris.

Thus, upon being offered the position of Chair of the Biochemistry Department at Western, Sanwal quickly accepted. As they say, the rest is history.

Sanwal’s ability to recreate the collegial environment very much held true. Its success has had lasting impact, being maintained by subsequent Departmental Chairs: Drs. William McMurray, Ted Lo and David Litchfield. The result has been outstanding science and a working environment that is unparalleled.

Sanwal was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1979. In October 2015, the Department of Biochemistry recognized his contributions and those of Lo by naming the Bishnu Sanwal and Theodore Lo Graduate Endowment Fund in their honour.

Vicki L. Hayter is Senior Development Officer, Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry.