Peter Lewin: An untold story
Dr. Michael Taylor and Bernie M. Farber
On June 7, 2005, Peter Lewin, a little-known doctor and scientist, died, all too young. Yet his story is the stuff of movies.
Though a pediatrician by trade, he was a pioneer in paleopathology, a field that employs modern medical investigative techniques to unlock secrets within human remains.
Born in Jerusalem in 1935, Lewin was the first son of a prominent Jewish German couple that had fled Germany when the Nazis seized power in 1933. When war broke out Lewin’s father, a psychiatrist, joined the British war effort and was stationed in Alexandria, Egypt. After the war, the family remained in Alexandria and Lewin attended Victoria College, a private school modelled on British boys’ schools such as Eton. Interestingly, among his schoolmates was Hussein Talal, who, many years later, would be crowned King Hussein of Jordan.
Lewin came to practice pediatrics at Toronto's SickKids Hospital after graduating from St. Mary's Hospital Medical School, University of London in 1959 and made the city his home.
Peter Lewin was an unassuming man with great charm and a professional history heroic in its proportions. A pediatrician trusted by his patients, few knew that this kind and genteel man with an old world charm hid an Indiana Jones persona.
His work had included applying electron microscopy to the mummified corpse of Pharaoh Ramses V in research that suggested that the markings on the 3,000-year-old skin were evidence of smallpox.
And this was not the first time Lewin had ventured back through time to uncover mummified secrets. A few years earlier, using a CT scanner and a 3D computer system, Lewin was able to unwrap another 3,000-year-old mummy, if only on a computer screen. Without disturbing the young woman dead and preserved over the millennia, Lewin used computer imaging to unwrap the mummy to its skin, bones and internal organs. He was even able to determine how the young woman died.
Incredibly, such a procedure was not new for Lewin who, in the mid 1970s, used imaging experiments then in their infancy to scan the brain of Nakht, a 14-year-old Egyptian weaver who also died 3,000 years ago.
In another study, Peter led a team investigating a lock of Napoleon’s hair with the novel technique of neutron activation analysis. This study determined that arsenic levels in the hair sample were normal, thereby debunking the long-held belief that Napoleon was the victim of arsenic poisoning.
And there was more: in 1997, Lewin found himself in the tiny Norwegian mining town of Longyearbyen, part of a Canadian-led team of scientists that would be exhuming the remains of six Norwegian men, all victims of the 1918 flu pandemic.
Longyearbyen is a remote place on an island just 1,300 kilometres from the North Pole. The team had chosen this site hoping that the remains of the flu victims would be found deep enough within the tundra to have remained frozen for the 80 years since their internment.
By extracting frozen tissue from the lungs of the miners, the team hoped to study viable samples of the virus that had caused the death of 60 million people worldwide, thereby gaining insight into how another such catastrophe might be averted.
Lewin served in the Royal Canadian Army medical corps, and received numerous decorations including the Order of Military Merit. He was a founding member of the International Paleopathology Association, a patron of the arts who did much to promote and support the work of several First Nations Canadian artists. He published more than 100 scientific papers, including work on prions, the infectious particles responsible for illnesses such as mad cow disease, which had earned him an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of Scientific Quotations.
And in 1975, he was honorary physician to the Queen Mother during a royal visit to Canada.
As it goes with science, Lewin’s work did not always yield results. The expedition to Longyearbyen ultimately proved to be something of a disappointment. Tissue samples were inadequately frozen to yield viable samples of the virus. Lewin would not have been overly discouraged. Indeed, there was little that could diminish his exuberance and enthusiasm for all facets of his life. Even in the face of an aggressive cancer that led to his death in 2005 at age 69, Lewin continued on as if nothing was amiss.
With all of his achievements, it was easy to forget that for over 40 years, Peter Lewin had been a practising pediatrician. He comforted sleep deprived, confused first-time parents, and many have never forgotten his words of wisdom and experience: “Just love your baby,” he would tell them.
May his memory be forever blessed.