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Innovation in Lands of Ice and Snow

By Dick Bourgeois-Doyle


Beaten, frozen, and weak, the prisoners slogged through the bush from first light into night dragging trees and heavy equipment over ice and snow. Many fell into the claws of starvation and festering disease. Those attempting escape were killed and left on display with their legs hacked off.

Isaac Vogelfanger shared in the horrors for over seven years as an inmate in Stalin’s prison camps, but his utility as a surgeon led to survival, freedom, and eventually emigration to Canada. Settling in Ottawa, he worked to shed his Gulag demons by saving Canadian lives.

He also helped define what it means to be inventive in Canada.

Dr. Vogelfanger’s life story would be dramatic and moving even if it ended when he was a young man. In 1881, at nine-years of age, he lost both his mother and father to typhoid fever. Though he felt the loss, he had the support of siblings, and he and his five sisters went to live with an older brother in Lwow, Poland (now Lviv, Ukraine). They managed to build a close, caring family without parents and with little money. With his brother’s support, Isaac developed a passion for mechanical devices and science, but the shortage of family funds prevented him from pursuing these fields at polytechnical institutes in Germany.

Staying in Lwow led him into the pragmatism of medicine and a position in the department of surgery at the university hospital. The decision also put him on the non-Nazi Soviet side of Poland after the invasion of 1939. As a Jew, Vogelfanger appreciated the border and was ready to defend it when Germany turned against Russia two years later. He joined the Red Army and worked feverishly to repair wounded soldiers until the day in 1943 when, without warning, he was arrested by the secret police, accused of being “an enemy of the people,” and imprisoned.

Like many others, Vogelfanger never learned the basis for the accusations against him. But this did not lessen the reality of torture, confinement, and disease. In the following years, he moved around the work camps fluctuating between despair and periods of relative privilege as a surgeon whose skills benefited the Communist Party commanders as well as the prisoners. Though millions died under Stalin’s terror, Dr. Vogelfanger, who encountered moments of kindness and even love during his imprisonment, survived with his skills and a piece of his spirit intact.

When freed in 1948, he returned to Poland hoping to find his brother, sisters, and dozens of nieces and nephews. The Holocaust had taken all but one.

After a period of disorientation and sorrow, he emigrated to Canada and settled in the capital city where he worked as a surgeon at the Civic Hospital. A complex personality, Isaac Vogelfanger earned respect as a dedicated and driven physician. Many interpreted his style as arrogant and aloof though those close to him saw a passionate romantic who was hard on himself and sensitive to the precarious nature of life.

Before his death at the age of 99 in 2009, Volgelfanger reflected on his experience in memoirs that recounted that time in Soviet prisons, but not to bemoan it. Rather he wanted to honour the compassion of others and those who risked their lives to help him. In his book, he also exposed his love of poetry, philosophy, the arts, and many women. Isaac Vogelfanger’s life clearly had the stuff of a vibrant, moving story. I summarize it here to acknowledge and confront a weakness in my attempt to recount the life and work of another person: one who shared the surgeon’s commitment and drive – the made dubbed Canada’s Great Inventer, George J. Klein.

I am comforted re-reading the original text of my biography of Klein to find fewer typos and editorial errors than one might fear. But with the experience and knowledge gained since the book’s release in 2004, I now recognize that I could have told a richer and more instructive story by paying greater attention to the people who collaborated with Klein in his inventions.

One was Vogelfanger.

Though the surgeon had little patience for those with lesser skill and dedication in his own arena of medicine, he was prepared to accept and respect those who had abilities and resources he did not possess. In the early 1960s, this led him to consult with Klein and machinists, technicians, and engineering designers at Canada’s National Research Council. Frustrated with the awkward, slow process of suturing veins and arteries, the demanding Vogelfanger wanted something better and faster.

With Klein, he developed the world’s first practical microsurgical suturing device. It meant the near instant repair of severed blood vessels. With the instrument, Vogelfanger and his medical colleagues performed hundreds of operations on animals to refine new surgical techniques. Eventually, they used these tools to advance surgery on humans, performing the first kidney transplant at Ottawa’s Civic Hospital and the world’s first double transplant involving organ transfers between hospitals.

The suturing invention was co-patented and licensed to a firm in Montreal for manufacture. Bereft of Isaac Volgelfanger’s history, the first edition of my biography on George Klein only made cursory reference to the suturing invention as an illustration of Klein’s diverse interests and, in part, as an example of a project that struggled under the lens of commercialization and marketing.

But I missed the point on two counts. One was the impact an invention can have even if it only manifests in a few objects or a single tool. Klein, like others in engineering design and machine shops at NRC, worked in service of research projects that could involve a solitary occurrence or that employed the same device repeatedly to bring broad public good.

The second reason that Dr. Volgelfanger’s experience and personality warrant greater attention lies in the interwoven, eco-system nature of creativity. As illustrated by many, if not all, of George J. Klein’s inventions, the new device or process flowed from the confluence of needs, skills, and vision mixed in the vessel of supportive institutions and times.

It is easy to imagine how the surgeon Vogelfanger’s Gulag experience would lead him to seek a better way and to look for it in the efficiency of the mechanical devices that had fascinated him as a boy. His arrival in Ottawa in the post-war boom of the 1950s coincided with growth in research capacities at NRC as expressed in the skill and enthusiasm of people like George Klein.

In the 21st century, science policy students and leaders recognize the power of cross-disciplinary collaboration as a standard ingredient, if not magic formula, in innovation. But too often they define the concept as the simple integration of technical skills. Impactful collaborations, however, also reflect the experience, the passions, and the dreams of the participants.

The story of “Canada’s Great Inventor” would be incomplete if it failed to celebrate these forces and acknowledge intense personalities like Isaac Vogelfanger, a man who came from Siberian prison camps to serve and innovate in another land of ice and snow.

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