MUHC: Groundbreaking researcher Phil Gold fueled by curiosity and heart

The clowns are more than a reminder of life's ironies, Dr. Phil Gold says.

The clowns are more than a reminder of life’s ironies, Dr. Phil Gold says.

The last thing you’d expect to find when visiting the office of a distinguished physician, researcher and professor is a collection of clowns.

But that is exactly what Dr. Phil Gold has at his home-away-from-home, his office at the Montreal General Hospital. That is also where the executive director of the clinical research centre at the MUHC has achieved an international reputation for his groundbreaking discovery on cancer markers. He is the Douglas G. Cameron professor of medicine, and professor of physiology and oncology at McGill University

The clowns are more than a reminder of the ironies of life, he noted in a recent interview: “It’s about what you see, and what you don’t see about the people you are with.

“You have to be able to see behind the veneer, so you can actually see what people are about.”

Gold remarked that my veneer had changed since I arrived for the interview. He saw me as very formal, then loosening up in the last 15 minutes of our talk, though he laughed, “Do I know you? No.”

In spite or maybe because of his success, Gold is relaxed and cheerful—a people person who is anything but pretentious, a reflection perhaps of his upbringing in humble circumstances on St. Laurent between Mount Royal and Villeneuve.

The son of Polish immigrants, Rose and Jack, Gold remembers not feeling poor or deprived because the family had what the neighbours had, or did not.

“We were brought up unwealthy, but nobody knew, because we were all in exactly the same circumstances. We had everything in a 10-block area, schools around the corner, the Y on Mount Royal, the mountain where we played.”

He remembers being one of the only Jewish families on the block and having to “draw first blood” when faced with street confrontations.

“If you drew first blood, everyone ran—if you didn’t, you got beaten up really badly. I learned early on how to defend myself.” But when someone got badly hurt, Gold says he promised himself to “never again strike someone in anger.”

Once word got out that he was a scrapper, Gold was fine as he walked through the lane to Bancroft School, then to Baron Byng High on St. Urbain. His father was a committed socialist, and Gold recalls going to meetings with him, an apparel designer and active member of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, and after day school to the Morris Winchesky School, which was “just to the left of Karl Marx—left wing and Yiddish.”

“My father was a true believer and one of the very difficult times in his life when, after Stalin died (in 1953), he came to realize what was really going on in the Soviet Union. I tried to convince him, without much success, that socialism per se was not a bad thing, but en route to Communism you had to pass one more ism, which is fascism. He was very distressed by my perception of that.”

During the summer as a teenager, Gold would take the 55 streetcar to the harbor where “I learned what it meant when things ‘fell off the back of trucks’.”

Gold worked at Pearl’s Grocery Store on the Main, then as an undergraduate at McGill washing bottles at Molson’s Brewery and selling the junior Britannica.

“Selling encyclopedias was critical, because life is selling, whether it be books, ideas, concepts or patient care and how they should be looking after themselves, and why.”

As a professor, Gold says he is “selling” when he transmits to students why they should be “learning how to learn, what a concept is and how to use it.”

And after tripping at the start of an encyclopedia sales pitch, evoking sympathy, Gold says, “from then on I tripped into every living room in Greenfield Park.”

Lesson learned: “If it works, do it, and in research, if it works, do it. And if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t mean you should stop.”

His research breakthrough came in discovering a Carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA), after he heard a talk on immunological tolerance, and he believed he should explore whether there are differences among tumour cells.

Gold dropped out of his first-year internship and completed a Ph.D with Arnold Burgen, “the only genius I’ve ever known.”

Gold and Dr. Samuel Freedman discovered the CEA during growth of cancer cells of the digestive


That resulted in development of a blood test that can indicate the presence, spread or reoccurrence of cancer and is useful in assessing the extent of a cancer, its growth rate and response to treatment. (Early tumours to not produce enough CEA to be detected.)

“It (the test) should never be used without symptoms, but in conjunction with the patient and the history,” he emphasized.

This discovery gave Gold tremendous credibility and standing in the medical research field and enabled him and his colleagues to get funding for such initiatives as McGill’s first HIV clinic, which opened in 1982 when the virus was first described.

In addition to his many awards and citations, in 2010 Gold was named to the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame, joining such innovating giants as Frederick Banting and Charles Best (insulin), Norman Bethune (mobile medical unit), Hans Selye (human stress), Ron Melzack (pain), Wilder Penfield (Montreal Neurological Institute founder) and Sir William Osler (first to bring medical students out of the classroom to bedside clinical training, first residency program for specialists.)

When it comes to the MUHC superhospital, Gold is enthusiastic, though he laments that it will be smaller than originally envisioned, with plans now for 346 adult single-bed rooms and 154 for children, down from the original 900 beds.

“Ambulatory care is better, surgery is shorter, but at the end of the day people are going to get sick. … We need to have more chronic-care facilities,” he says, noting that home-care has its limits.

Among reasons emergency rooms are so overcrowded, he says too many hospital beds are being used for patients requiring chronic care. A general hospital is the wrong place for these patients, too expensive at about $1,200 a day.

In spite of lack of planning, failure to keep Quebec-trained health-care professionals here or attract those from outside the province, Gold maintains our health-care system compares well “with anywhere else in the world.”

“We had state-of the art 25 years ago, even better, and now we have state-of the art for this time. Going forward, I hope it will be the same.

“When you are in the system you are safe. The problem is getting into the system.

“People wait. I was told the other day that someone had called another hospital for orthopedic surgery and was told there was a two-year wait. That’s insanity!

“In Calgary they’re waiting a year to be seen by an immunologist,

and we’re complaining about our system?

“It’s not great, but it works. The question is how long you hold it together with chewing gum and Scotch tape. We’re still ahead of the game, we still turn out extraordinary research, and provide excellent patient care, but where is it going?

“I don’t know.”

As we wrapped up our conversation, I noticed a photo of his wife, Evelyn Katz, and their three children—Ian, Canada research chair in philosophy and psychiatry at McGill; Josie, a Montreal graphic designer; and Joel, a New York City psychiatrist—and seven grandchildren.

There are lots of clowns, but one photo of the entire Gold family is clearly his greatest joy.

More on the MUHC:

Superhospital to house researchers, foster collaboration

Raids and fiscal scandals hurt MUHC’s image in the community

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