April 2012

Charles Philippe Leblond was born in Lille, France, in 1910 and received his MD from the University of Paris in 1934. He came to McGill after fleeing the Second World War and stayed for the rest of his career. In the words of the Journal of Anatomy, he was “a giant in the field of cell and tissue biology.” His personal qualities and the many accomplishments in the course of his exceptionally long career inspire those who knew him. In 2004, at an international conference, he delivered what proved to be his last public lecture, still displaying his trademark wit. He had brought his presentation on a USB stick and joked to the crowd, “a month ago I thought Power Point was a tool for sharpening pencils.” He was then 94.

He is described by family members as “uncompromising,” “dedicated” and “precise.” Philippe Leblond, BEng’60, the oldest of Leblond’s children, says “in his lab, there was one day a year that everyone hated. He forced everybody to empty their closets and their drawers onto the floor and then put everything back into place.”

Leblond’s dedication and precision served him well. During the early stages of his career, he pioneered the use of autoradiography, a procedure that permits the observation of changes in the cells of living organisms. He struggled with several aspects of this procedure, notably, the short half-life of the radioactive isotopes. Gertrude Sternschuss (to whom Leblond was married for 64 years) would inject iodine isotopes into rats and Leblond would hurry to his lab to quickly dissect them. But the isotopes in the target specimens typically decayed within 25 minutes, leaving Leblond with little or nothing to observe.

Leblond’s first truly successful applications of autoradiography were achieved at McGill during the 1940s. Philippe, then just a boy, remembers giving a helping hand. “He had this Geiger counter. It was this huge box, with vacuum tubes in it. At night we had to do counts of the background radioactivity. I’d have to sit there as this thing went, one, two, three…

These experiments were carried out in the Strathcona Building, at that time the headquarters of the Faculty of Medicine, the Osler Library and a museum. Philippe describes how he would sometimes take a break from the Geiger counter and wander around marveling at the museum’s eclectic holdings, which included an Inuit totem pole and the fetuses of Siamese twins in formaldehyde.

It was only after successfully using markers with a longer half-life and increasing the resolution of autoradiography that Leblond was able to achieve his breakthrough results. What he found was proof of the rapid turnover of cells. “The cells of the small intestine, for example, were reported to be replaced every two days – a concept originally dismissed by critics as ‘too silly for words.’”* Cell turnover is now, of course, a fundamental concept in biology.

Leblond was also an exceptional and truly unique teacher. Former students remember his multi-colour chalk drawings, rendered a half hour before class to illustrate his lectures in histology. His attention to detail was just as acute in the lecture hall as the lab. “When he was preparing a lecture he used to spend a lot of time with my mother going over each slide,” recalls Marie-Pascale Leblond, his daughter. “Because he had an accent, he wanted to pronounce things perfectly.” Everyone who met him also speaks of his personal trademark – his love of purple –inspired by the periodic acid-Schiff stain, which influenced his wardrobe and home furnishings.

Despite his work ethic, by no means was Leblond perpetually cloistered in a lab, office or lecture hall. He also believed in an active social life and taking breaks from McGill. Grand-daughter Sabrina Leblond-Murphy fondly recalls Leblond’s country house, Val Mauve, named, of course, for Leblond’s favourite colour. “In the city he was always dressed immaculately in a perfect suit,” Sabrina says. “When he was in the country, he allowed himself to wear jeans. He would put on his Wellingtons and go out.” At Val Mauve he loved to feed the ducks. He even built a shelter for them.

After his wife Gertrude passed away, Leblond re-married. Both bride and groom were 91.

Philippe, Marie-Pascale and Sabrina have inherited some of Leblond’s traits while each finding a unique career path. Philippe trained as an engineer at McGill and worked in the field for several decades before eventually turning to his current field, Feldenkrais, which he describes as a “systems engineer’s perspective on neuro-muscular dysfunction.” Marie-Pascale teaches biology at the Collège de Rosement, not surprisingly an occupation that her father approved of and for which he gave her valuable advice along the way.

Sabrina is currently an MDCM student in the very same faculty to which her grandfather dedicated over half his life. But the road to McGill was far from smooth. In July 2008, just two months before she was scheduled to write the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), she was diagnosed with leukemia. It wasn’t until June 2010 that she was well enough to resume her MCAT studies and apply to medical school. The experience of illness is one she says will definitely shape how she will practice medicine.

Each family member gives a description of Leblond. “He had the highest levels of integrity,” Philippe says. “He never sacrificed his values for something he had to do.” Marie-Pascale calls her father “disciplined, determined and uncompromising on the quality of the work he did.” Sabrina has the final word. “What I’ve taken from him is this: if you don’t know the answer to something, say so. Then go out and find the answer.”

Sabrina Leblond-Murphy, Philippe Leblond and Marie-Pascale Leblond with Abe Fuks, BSc’68, MDCM’70, who presented at the symposium held in CP Leblond's honour during Homecoming 2011. Photo: Nicholas Morin

* From an obituary by Gary Bennett, Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology, McGill University and Antonio Haddad, Departamento de Biologia Celular, University of Sao Paulo

[Laurence Miall]

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11 Responses to “”
  1. K.B.Lim MD says:

    It was amazing to read this article about Dr Leblond—who was my Histology professor in Medical School. He was the best teacher—-and I will always have very fond memories of him—truly a gentleman scholar who cared for his students and ensured that they all perform to the maximum of their abilities. Other than Dr Yves Clermont who taught us Anatomy, I cannot think of any other teachers in my entire college career who comes close to Dr Leblond’s skill of teaching. I will never forget him and will forever be grateful to him for my early medical education

  2. Michael Mindel, M.D.,C.M. says:

    I was a McGill medical student from 1966-1970. I was lucky to have had Professor LeBlond and Professor Clermont in Anatomy and Histology. I remember Professor Leblond as an excellent and dedicated teacher – with the most charming of French accents and copious amounts of passion for his field.

    He had a delightful but reserved sense of humour. I still remember him telling a joke involving a prostitute with a fracture somewhere – who needed to have her fracture immobilised. The punch-line involved something about the prostitute having so many functional positions that they couldn’t decide which position to choose for immobilisation. (You get the picture) Watching Professor Leblond blush slightly as he gave the punch line – was the best part of the presentation. 🙂

    I was indeed lucky to have had him as one of my beloved teachers back in the 1960’s….

  3. A. R. (Bob) Turner MDCM72 says:

    I too have fond memories of Histology lectures and autoradiography demonstrations. I will never forget the crypts of “Leeeeberkyuun” that he loved to repeat 20-30 times in a lecture.

  4. Mary Trott (MDCM1969) says:

    A summer spent studying the maturation time of mouse testicular stem cells by autoradiography in the Histology lab gave me a clearer perspective of two Histology professors – Drs. Leblond and Clermont – than listening to them in the lecture hall. I can attest to their dedication and passion for the field, and the enthusiasm with which they imbued their students. It was important to look purposeful if you were found wandering in the hall during work hours (one carried a beaker of water and walked briskly to one’s destination), to avoid being stopped by Dr. Leblond and asked to explain why you were not at your bench doing something productive. They were both charming individuals who set an example of integrity and excellent work ethic for all of us.

  5. Barb Montgomery says:

    I used to love the lectures where he would go off topic. It was the history off medicine and research live. He had the best stories.My favorite prof ever.A great teacher and a great man.

  6. Joel Wolkowicz, MDCM 1984 says:

    Our class was enthralled by him. We thought C.P. stood for “Completely Purple”.

  7. Colin Forbes, M.D,.C.M.,55 says:

    CP said,” Today we will study ze penis. He drew a chalk line across all 3 panels of the blackbouard rounded the end and marched back to complete the large tubular structure. He stepped back, rubbed his hand, smiled that whimsical smirk and said” I seenk I ave been a beet too generous!”, He then took the eraser and began to rub out a section. “. Come on class of 55 , back me up on this!. CP was our beloved and resprected hero. We shall always love him.

  8. Robert Kessaram MDCM 1973 says:

    One of the best and most entertaining professors I have ever had

  9. Peter Winn MDCM 1978 says:

    It truely is amazing that he had lived to such an old age of 97! Ihave fond memories of his excellence in teaching and I truely was hesitant to discard the notes from his lectures when I came across them 5 years ago during a spring cleaning! I can only hope to reach age 97 with such vigor he seems to have had !

  10. Sherif Karam says:

    It was an honor to obtain my PhD (1987-1990) under the supervision of Dr Leblond. He was a wonderful supervisor. I learned a lot from him; not only about science, but also life. I will never forget that when he became sick for a few days and was unable to come to the department, he asked me to take a taxi to his house in Westmount and bring the microscope with me to show him some new results! During the visits of his lab members to his purple summer house, it was always amazing to see him full of activities. He will always remain in my memory.

  11. He was a great teacher and easy to sort of caricature. I used to do a skit about him giving us a lecture on the mammary gland! Great Times.