Professor Harold Kalant (1923-2021)

Harold Kalant bannerIf you read something written by Dr. Harold Kalant, you will likely start to hear his unique voice speaking the words in your mind. His precise speech and flowing logic locked in the credibility of his obvious erudition and wisdom. His recollection of events and profundity of thought were as clear at 97 years of age as in his younger years.

Harold was born on November 15, 1923 in Toronto, Canada. As a child and student at Bloor Collegiate Institute, he wanted to study medicine and expressed interest in medical research. His family could not afford to send him to medical school, so he took advantage of an entrance scholarship and started his studies at the University of Toronto in an Honours Science program. Harold fulfilled his dream of studying medicine and graduated from the University of Toronto medical school in 1945, while also serving in the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps from 1943 to 1947. During his post-graduate medical training, which included six months of residency at Saskatoon Veteran’s Hospital and one year at the Toronto Western Hospital, he was required to complete a basic science year as part of his specialization in internal medicine. This was when Harold met his future wife, Oriana Josseau, an MSc student working with Charles Best at the Banting Institute. Harold’s first coffee with Oriana, simply put, led to their marriage in 1948.

Oriana was obliged to return to Chile for at least two years as her graduate studies were supported by her homeland, so Harold accompanied her to Chile where he was able, with the help of Oriana’s supervisor at the Institute of Physiology at the University of Chile, to obtain a Clinical Fellowship at the same university and also participate in clinical research in the area of liver disease. While Harold and Oriana enjoyed living in Chile (and considered staying for more than two years), Harold would have had to re-take his medical studies in order to practice medicine there due to the restrictions of the Chilean system. As a result, Harold and Oriana returned to Toronto at the end of December 1950.

Harold was required to complete six additional months of training in internal medicine in order to take his FRCP (Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians) examinations. However, since he returned mid-way through the academic term, there were no positions available until the next cycle began in July. He was advised to return to the lab and he asked his former supervisor from his basic science year if he could complete a PhD in pathological chemistry, with the intention of returning to clinical medicine. However, this turned out to be a turning point in Harold’s career as it led to his research in addiction, and ironically, steered him away from his internal medicine practice.

While also working part-time as an attending physician at the Bell Clinic for Alcohol Problems from 1952-1955, Harold completed his PhD in 1955 and he subsequently travelled to England with Oriana for a year of postdoctoral studies in biochemistry at Cambridge University. Upon returning to Toronto, he was offered a position in 1956 as the Head of the Biochemistry Section for the Defense Research Medical Laboratories (DRML). In 1959, Edward A. Sellers, who knew Harold from the DRML and was then the Chair of the Department of Pharmacology at the University of Toronto, offered Harold an academic position as an Associate Professor. At the same time, the Addiction Research Foundation of Ontario (ARF) offered Harold the opportunity to set up a biomedical research program in alcoholism as its Assistant Research Director. This launched Harold’s career in addiction studies, as he was able to convince both employers that they should work together, enabling Harold to split his time between the University of Toronto and the ARF, which later became part of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in 1998.

Harold initially focussed on the metabolic aspects of alcohol action in the liver, gaining confidence over time to broaden his research interests to other aspects of addiction, including behavioural pharmacology. He was promoted to Full Professor in 1964 and the Director of Biobehavioural Research at the ARF in 1979. In addition to co-authoring many influential books and book chapters, including Drugs, Society and Personal Choice written with Oriana and reprinted in several languages, Harold published hundreds of scientific publications and reports. While he humbly acknowledged during an interview that his research likely led to a better understanding of hypoxic liver injury and alcohol and drug tolerance and dependence, his publications, reports, conversations and presentations undoubtedly had a tremendous and much broader scientific impact.

He served in an important editorial capacity for several journals and also as the Chair or Expert Advisor on numerous committees, including those for the World Health Organization, Health Canada, Justice Canada, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), and the Addiction Research Foundation in California. Harold was also a founding member of the International Society for Biomedical Research on Alcoholism for which he served as President from 1990-1994.

Harold received numerous awards and recognitions for his illustrious contributions to science and the field of addiction including the Jellinek Memorial Award for Research on Alcoholism (1972), the Raleigh Hills Foundation International Gold Medal (1981), the Distinguished Researcher Award of the Research Society on Alcoholism (1983), the Upjohn Award for the Pharmacological Society of Canada (1985), the Nathan B. Eddy Memorial Award from the College on Problems of Drug Dependence (1986), and the Distinguished Scientist Award of the American Society of Addiction Medicine (1995). In 2002, he was selected to deliver the NIAAA’s annual Mark Keller Honorary Lecture. He was a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Society of Canada and the first honorary Fellow of the Society of the Study of Addiction in the United Kingdom. As a crowning achievement, Harold was appointed as a Member of the Order of Canada in 2013, the highest civilian honour in Canada, recognizing his extraordinary contributions to the nation. Yet, despite these many accolades, Harold eschewed any laudatory praise and insisted on being treated like any other member of the Department of Pharmacology & Toxicology.

Harold trained many future scientists and physicians who have gone on to be world leaders in their fields. He appreciated the collegial atmosphere he experienced as a young scientist at the Addiction Research Foundation and the University of Toronto and has most generously supported generations of scientists through his financial support of awards for university students. In addition to his research, Harold taught undergraduate, graduate, medical and pharmacy students. Many of his current departmental colleagues were taught by him and respected him as their professor and a co-editor of the departmental textbook, Principles of Medical Pharmacology, first published in 1975. Harold continued to lecture after becoming an Emeritus Professor in 1989, using videoconferencing software for the remote teaching of the unprecedented 2020-2021 academic year.

Harold was a voracious reader and was familiar with a vast array of scientific literature. He enjoyed discussing historical aspects of pharmacology and sharing fascinating stories from his life and career in conversation. Although a very private man, Harold was engaging, considerate, and unstintingly generous of his time. His intensely serious expression when attentively listening or discussing topics that he was vehement about was usually belied by his warm gaze and infectious smile, expressing his genuine thoughtfulness, sincerity, and interest in those around him. Harold approached the ordeal of his illness with his usual dignity and pragmatism.

Through his dedication to his work and the advancement of medicine, Harold influenced the prevention and treatment of drug dependence and public policies related to substance use, both domestically and abroad. In recent years, Harold actively cautioned against the rapid legalization of recreational cannabis use in Canada, advocating for initial decriminalization to take the time to better understand its health and social effects, particularly in younger people. In all areas of discussion, Harold chose his words carefully and focussed on the best available evidence with a reasoned approach, neither exaggerating the details nor being overmodest about his beliefs.

Everyone who knew Harold considered him to be a mentor and role model. He leaves an outstanding and lasting impact from his tireless dedication to medical research as a physician, teacher, scholar, and scientific advocate.

Obituary and Family Guestbook: Mount Pleasant