Canadian microbiologist Dr. Donald Low has died at the age of 68.
Low, who was a prominent figure in Toronto’s SARS outbreak in 2003, died on Wednesday after being diagnosed with a brain tumour early this year.
Allison McGeer, a former colleague of Low’s, said he died with family at his side.
A native of Winnipeg, Low was credited by friends and colleagues for both his contribution to the SARS response and for advancing the practice of microbiology and infectious diseases across Canada.
He had a keen mind and loved to puzzle out intriguing new developments in infectious diseases. However, it was through the 2003 SARS outbreak that he became a familiar face to Canadians.
While he had no formal leadership role on the response team, his capacity to explain through the media to the public what was going on in the fast-moving outbreak made Low the face of Toronto’s SARS response.
680News reporter Kevin Misener interviewed Dr. Low during the SARS crisis and shared his recollections on Twitter. Read the tweets below:
Dr. Low was a brilliant microbiologist and easily one of the most approachable and accommodating experts I've had the pleasure to interview.
— Kevin Misener (@Misener680News) September 19, 2013
Dr. Low was under quarantine during the SARS crisis, but still did phone interviews with 680News from his home to keep people up to date.
— Kevin Misener (@Misener680News) September 19, 2013
While he was always cognizant of the fact that SARS ended 44 lives and permanently altered others, for Low, a microbiologist, being at an epicentre of the outbreak of a new infectious disease was a career highlight.
Low spoke to 680News about SARS in 2003. Listen to the clip below.
[Download] (To download: Right click -> Save as)
Low studied at the University of Manitoba, getting his science degree and his degree in medicine there. After doing his internship and working for several years in Los Angeles, he returned to Winnipeg in 1982 as microbiologist-in-chief at St. Boniface Hospital.
Long-time friend Dr. Allan Ronald, a giant in Canadian infectious diseases medicine, said Low transformed what was a typical community hospital laboratory into a very good lab.
“He was a natural leader and a very bright, fun-loving individual who made for good times in terms of the whole issue of looking after sick people and trying to be enthusiastic and doing a good job” said Ronald, a professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba.
“(He had) lots of energy. He really pursued things to get the answers.”
Low’s work in Winnipeg garnered notice. In 1985 he was recruited to run the microbiology department at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital, a position he held till his death.
“His many friends and colleagues here at Mount Sinai are profoundly saddened by this loss,” said Joseph Mapa, president at Mount Sinai Hospital, in a written statement.
“And will remember him not only for his many outstanding contributions, including the significant role that he played here at Mount Sinai and all of Toronto during the 2003 SARS crisis, but for his kindness, good humour and commitment to patient care.”
Dr. Lionel Mandell, Low’s best friend, said he was a terrific role model.
“He was a tremendous educator and he was a fabulous researcher. But I think if you wanted to point to what’s the high water mark in terms of what can somebody achieve in microbiology and ID (infectious diseases) as an academic, he would be it,” said Mandell, professor emeritus of infectious diseases at McMaster University in Hamilton.
“He’s the guy you would point to in terms of what’s possible to achieve.”
Dr. Donald Low’s life was a tribute to reason, science & the human imperative to keep each other safe. He will be missed.
— Kathleen Wynne (@Kathleen_Wynne) September 19, 2013
After commissions of inquiry criticized Ontario’s response capacity during SARS and in particular the state of the province’s long-neglected public health laboratory, Low was pressed to lead a revitalization of that facility.
He served as medical director of public health laboratory of the Ontario Agency for Health Protection and Promotion (now Public Health Ontario) from 2005 to 2012 — all the while remaining microbiologist-in-chief at Mount Sinai.
For Dr. McGeer, this contribution was more important than what Low did during SARS.
“He was stellar and amazing at what he did during SARS, but the amount of work and energy and effort that went into taking a moribund public health lab and turning it into a really useful lab … is of enormous value,” said McGeer, who worked under Low as head of infection control at Mount Sinai.
In the early 1990s, when flesh-eating disease made a resurgence after decades of only rare appearances, Low quickly grasped that something had changed about the pattern of infections group A Strep was causing. He organized an Ontario-wide surveillance system, publishing findings in the New England Journal. Later, work he did on intravenous immunoglobulin rewrote the treatment protocol for group A Strep, McGeer said.
In the mid-1990s Low led an investigation that showed that a bacteria seen in fish — Streptococcus iniae — could sicken humans, finding infections in people who had recently handled farmed tilapia. That too made it into the New England Journal.
McGeer said Low’s biggest contribution, though, was training and mentoring a large network of infectious disease specialists.
Low is survived by his wife, Maureen Taylor, and by three children from a previous marriage.