School of Medicine honours Holocaust survivor who advanced leukemia treatment

History of medicine intersects with the Holocaust 

School of Medicine honours Holocaust survivor.

On Wednesday evening, only two days after the day of commemoration for the victims of the Holocaust, Queen’s School of Medicine honoured Halina Robinson, a Holocaust survivor who went on to play a role in the discovery of Vinca alkaloids, which are used in the treatment of leukemia. 

The Holocaust memorial event, which took place in the School of Medicine building on Arch St., was organized by Nathan Katz, a second-year medical student and a person of Jewish descent.

Katz hosted the talk along with Jacalyn Duffin, the Hannah Professor Emerita of History of Medicine at Queen’s and a recent inductee into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame.

Katz spoke to The Journal about his role in organizing the event and the impetus behind reaching Duffin to join him in the talk. 

“[Holocaust remembrance] is an important part of medical education and it isn’t covered very much,” Katz said. “My dad has been organizing a Holocaust memorial event in England for the last three years. I feel a strong connection to it.”

According to Katz, he didn’t know about Halina Robinson’s story until after he contacted Dr. Duffin to speak at the event.

Katz says he was conducting research for a history of medicine project when he came across an article by Duffin on the history of Queen’s medical school denying admission to Jewish applicants.

Katz was inspired by Duffin’s paper and reached out to have her speak about it. Duffin responded with a revelation Katz hadn’t foreseen.

“I got in contact with Duffin and she said she’d be happy to speak, but she was writing this memoir and thought it might be more appropriate for the event,” he said.

The night of the memorial, Duffin spoke first, reading from Heaven, Hell and Purgatory, Robinson’s memoir. The book was edited by Duffin and published on Jan. 27.

In her memoir, Robinson describes her hellish experience in the Auschwitz concentration camp, and later Bergen-Belsen where she was deported with her mother. She recounts the atrocities she experienced, like the destruction of the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw, Poland, and her accompanying feelings of humiliation and dehumanisation brought on by the Holocaust.

In 1945, Robinson was liberated and sent to Sweden as a displaced person, where she studied to become a chemical engineer. Later, Robinson moved to Canada and began work in a university laboratory. At Western University, Robinson made a breakthrough discovery leading to the identification of Vinca alkaloids, which are used in the treatment of childhood leukemia.

After Duffin’s segment, Katz delivered a speech about the importance of commemorating the Holocaust as a way of preventing history from repeating itself.

Following his speech, Katz told The Journal “I think [telling Halina’s story] is a perfect way of doing this Holocaust memorial […] It’s a nice connection between history of medicine, her discovery of Vinca alkaloids and the fact that she was a Holocaust survivor.”

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