Medicine Alumni Global Awards: Phil Gold
For Phil Gold, BSc’57, MDCM’61, MSc’61, PhD’65, the career path that earned him McGill’s 2011 Medicine Alumni Global (MAG) Lifetime Achievement Award, really began in Grade 5, at Montreal’s Bancroft Elementary School. “I realized I was being taught what I had already learned in Grade 4,” says Gold. Displaying a kind of youthful naiveté, that would become a brand of chutzpah that would go on to serve him well, he went to see the Principal. “I’m not learning anything new,” he told him. “Do I have to come to school?”
The Principal explained that while attending school was mandatory, attending class was not, and he gave Gold permission to spend his time in the library instead. There, Gold spent hours on a voyage of discovery, reading anything and everything from science to Shakespeare.
He also learned on the streets of Montreal. The Main, the area of boulevard St. Laurent, where he grew up, was a tough neighbourhood in the 1940s, rife with anti-Semitism. Gold quickly figured out that you had to know how to stand up for yourself. “You don’t have to be loved to do what you want to do,” is one of the lessons he took away with him. After Bancroft he went on to Baron Byng High School, (attended by other notable Montrealers, including his friend Mordecai Richler and Irving Layton). He still remembers his teachers with affection.
Gold liked to listen to the stories of the people around him, including the garment workers at union meetings his father took him to and the longshoremen he got to know by hanging around the harbour, many of whom, like his parents, worked extremely hard to give their children better opportunities in life. “You learn different things from different people,” he says.
From the Main, he moved on to McGill, where he has been, with few exceptions, ever since. He found new mentors: Sir Arnold Burgen, his supervisor in physiology who convinced him to go to medical school; Samuel Freedman, who supported Gold’s research that would lead to the discovery of carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA), the blood test for cancer; and countless other professors, colleagues, and students who have inspired him over his illustrious career. “There are three things that determine your life,” says Gold. “Genes, the environment and luck.” For Gold, luck, or the “fortunome,” a term he has coined for it, is “all the people you have met on the way through that have helped determine your life.”
Currently a professor of Medicine, Physiology and Oncology and executive director of the Clinical Research Centre at the MUHC, Gold also served as physician-in-chief at the Montreal General Hospital, chair of the Department of Medicine, and inaugural director of what is now the Rosalind and Morris Goodman Cancer Research Centre. He has won numerous national and international awards for his work as a researcher, clinician, and educator, including the Gairdner Foundation International Award, the Isaak Walton Killam Award in Medicine of the Canada Council, and the Queen Elizabeth II Jubilee medal. He was named an Officer and then Companion of the Order of Canada, and Officer of the National Order of Quebec.
The accolades have not gone to Gold’s head. “He’s terribly shy and uncomfortable about them,” says his wife Evelyn. Gold is more comfortable celebrating the accomplishments of his family, including his “academic family.” He spends much of his current time mentoring others as well as teaching. “There is a wonderful Yiddish word that doesn’t translate, called nachas, which is the pride and joy you take in the accomplishments of your offspring,” says Gold. “And I have that with both my academic and my biological offspring.”
His wife, children, and grandchildren (six grandsons and one granddaughter) play a huge role in Gold’s life. Everywhere you look in the Golds’ house is a reflection of a life well lived. A mobile, with photos of grandchildren, a present from their daughter Josie, hangs between the living room and dining room. An almost complete “Happy Anniversary” is spelled out on the hallway wall, each letter a photo of various grandchildren posed in the appropriate shape. Every other surface is taken up by artwork by Evelyn and other artists, medals and awards Gold has received at various times in his career (framed and displayed by Evelyn), and other souvenirs of a lifetime of curiosity and exploration. Souvenirs that Gold continues to accumulate—the 75-year-old physician and researcher is as active and engaged as ever. “You always have to have a dream,” he says. Thankfully for McGill, Gold continues to dream big.