Oration | Address to Convocation
Dr. Michel Chrétien was trained as a physician at Harvard University and the University of Montreal. While he was an assistant biochemist at the University of California at Berkeley, he discovered the gamma-liptotropic hormone, which is involved in the control of obesity.
In 1967, Dr. Chrétien opened a laboratory on polypeptide hormones at the Clinical Research Institute of
Montreal (CRIM), where he worked for 30 years. His research led him to propose the innovative theory that such peptide hormones are produced from large precursor proteins.
The theory was confirmed in 1970 by the isolation of beta-endorphin, a potent painkiller that is naturally
produced in the brain of humans and animals.
Dr. Chrétien also helped discover the mammalian protein convertases, factors that produce smaller hormones from larger proteins. The discovery has opened up new approaches for the treatment of
diseases such as cancer, heart disease and viral infections.
Dr. Chrétien is currently chief executive officer and scientific director of the Loeb Health Research Institute at the Civic Campus of the Ottawa Hospital.
Since assuming that role in 1998, Dr. Chrétien has championed several groundbreaking projects. He is particularly excited about the Loeb's new Regional Protein Chemistry Centre where it will focus on developing preventive measures to combat diseases such as Alzheimer's, atherosclerosis, diabetes and AIDS.
An Officer of the Order of Canada and the Order of Québec, Dr. Chrétien has written nearly 500 journal and science articles, holds three other honorary degrees and has taught and lectured at numerous universities worldwide.
Dr. Chrétien will receive an honorary doctor of science degree.
Oration honouring Dr. Michel Chrétien
Dr. Annette Staveley, university orator
Mr. Chancellor, as you are famous for your sensitivity to the cultural stereotyping of women, I am sure you are aware of women's struggle to break free from the confining labels of “wives,” “mothers” and “sisters”; nevertheless, I ask you, today, to consider the grave injustice endured by that neglected, much-maligned group, “husbands,” “fathers” and “brothers.”
Brothers in particular do not fare well in our inherited cultural narratives. Who can forget the fate of Jacob, Esau's gentle younger brother, who barely escaped his elder brother's vengeful wrath, after he duped his father into giving away the blessing and the patrimony? What hope for mankind when the central pattern for brotherly love is the slaughter of that amiable shepherd, the younger brother, Abel, by the envious elder Cain? And pity poor Joseph, of the many-coloured dream-coat, who had no fewer than 10 older brothers. What chance had he of fame, fortune and fun?
Fortunately, we, at Memorial, are dedicated to the critical examination of knowledge in the pursuit of truth, so we are not bound by such fearful symmetries, or narratives. Neither is our distinguished honorary graduand, Dr. Michel Chrétien. This outstanding Canadian biomedical research scientist, this world-renowned leader in the scientific community, Fellow of the Royal Society, Officer of the Order of Canada, and the Order of Québec, the recipient of honorary degrees from the universities of Liége and Paris, and popular guest speaker at universities all over the world is also a younger brother, but he is honoured and revered by his older brother, someone by the name of Jean.
These Canadian brothers have broken the cultural stereotypes — these brothers are not bitter rivals, competing for love and attention — at least not since they were in the same classroom in Trois-Rivières. Perhaps it helped that, like so many parents here today, their parents, Willie and Marie Chrétien, taught all their children the values of love and learning, and perhaps, also, Michel heeded Albert Einstein's advice that “equations are more important than politics because politics is for the present, but an equation is for eternity.”
In his quest to unravel the encoded secrets of nature, Michel may have thought it would be an eternity before he and his colleagues deciphered the enigma of enzymes, molecules, and hormones, for it was only after a persistent search that he and his group of fellow scientists discovered and named a new set of enzymes — convertases — which were involved in cleaving large, precursor molecules into numerous active substances. This major discovery contributed to our understanding of many of life's debilitating diseases, including diabetes, cancer, the Ebola virus, Alzheimer's and AIDS. Michel Chrétien's work opened a new chapter in biochemistry.
Like Flaubert's novels, this chapter took many years to write and Michel Chrétien, along with the graduates here today, has experienced the long hours of work, the disheartening frustrations and the occasional moments of triumph in the never-ending quest to understand and govern recalcitrant nature. Today's graduates can take heart from the intellectual and moral courage of one of Canada's foremost research scientists who modestly admits that it took 23 years from the time of formulating the initial hypothesis from a “little bottle of precious white powder extracted from the pituitary glands of sheep” to the actual discovery and naming of the set of enzymes that established his international renown. Just in case there is any residual rivalry between brothers, I will not mention that it took Michel's elder brother much longer to convert his initial experience of being an MP in Ottawa to becoming the PM — of the best country in the world.
Mr. Chancellor, in recognition of Michel Chrétien's exemplary contribution to the study of life at the molecular level and in recognition of the collaborative way he has shared his knowledge with the world to ameliorate the human condition, and for changing the way we think about brothers, — I ask you to confer on Michel Chrétien the degree of doctor of science, honoris causa.
My wife, Micheline, and I wish to express our sincere gratitude for the exceptional reception we are receiving from the authorities and the professorial personnel of your institution. Je suis très honoré de faire partie de votre prestigieuse université à titre de docteur honoris causa and I am pleased to share this great honour with my elder brother Jean.
Je vous suis très reconnaissant de l'invitation de joindre les rangs de votre corps professoral et je vous promet de porter fièrement les insignes de votre institution. I accept this honour with both pride and humility. I accept it on behalf of my colleagues, some of whom have joined our group more than 26 years ago. I am profoundly thankful to the members of your Senate who have bestowed their confidence in me. I find myself in excellent company among the other honorary degree recipients who will be recognized by Memorial University over the course of the 2000 Spring Convocation.
I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the professors who are assuring the high level of academic activities. These scholars, who spend so much time and effort to make our universities the best centres of higher learning, always impress me. They prepare new generations of graduates to face the challenges of tomorrow. They have adopted your mission statement, which reads “Memorial University is committed to excellence in teaching, research and scholarship, and service to the general public.”
Your exceptional professors and mentors have inspired a great number of Canadians to acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to become leaders in the most important sectors of our society, both here and abroad.
Many of your colleagues and graduates have enjoyed great success in sciences, in arts and letters, in political and business circles. They have made their mark on local, provincial, national and international scenes.
Their secret has been self-confidence, generosity, perseverance, selflessness and sustained efforts. I would recommend to the students present here today to follow these principles of life in order to create for them a good place in our society.
Similar axioms were taught to us by our esteemed parents, Marie and Willie Chrétien, who were, and remain, our role models.
Throughout my life, I have attempted to follow their lessons and have shared these values with my dear wife, Micheline, whose love, intelligence, joviality, collaboration and constant support have been indispensable to my academic success as well as being a continuous source of inspiration.
Our beloved parents put education as the prime goal on our agenda. They insisted that every one of us should go to school as long as one possibly could. They made enormous sacrifices to insure that we would attend the best institutions, while insisting that we prolong our studies the necessary length to reach our goals. At the same time, they respected our choices of career and supported all of our initiatives.
I happen to have taken the longest route since I terminated my training at age 31. Being the last of a large family, I had many people to borrow money from.
In memory of our dear parents, I thought to say a few words about education, particularly in addressing the students who are graduating today.
Let's pretend for a moment that Marie and Willie Chrétien are the ones receiving doctorates honoris causa and let's pretend, addressing you today.
They will first tell you that you have to study as long as possible, that you have to give the maximum of efforts, you have to be persistent, patient and stubborn in the pursuit of your ideals.
They will tell you to acquire polyvalent skills so that you will be equipped to adapt to the extremely rapid evolution.
If you adopt this philosophy in life and if you are able to get advanced degrees, you can look at the future with a lot of optimism. Education constitutes the best insurance policy for your own eventual success and for the social and economic future of our country.
Education is an enriching experience, which forms your brains and trains your character. It prepares you to face the challenges of life and these challenges are bigger than ever. Know-how and technology are developing at an extremely rapid pace. It is estimated that that knowledge in science in general, and in biological sciences in particular, doubles every 20 years, if not every decade.
It takes scholars of the highest competence to evaluate the problems confronting our society and to propose solutions to correct them.
Technology is keeping pace and the tools put at our disposition are user friendly and more and more efficient.
For example, the capacity of the microchips in the computers is doubling almost every year; the development of fibre optics permits the transmission of data at the speed of light.
As stated by Louis Thériault of the Conference Board of Canada: “Demands for telecommunications, fibre optics and software to feed explosive growth in the internet is largely fuelling the extraordinary growth of high tech.”
Last week Nortel Networks placed a full-page ad in national newspapers that read: “Nortel Networks is connecting Canada's children to the future at the speed of light.”
We all agree that the new economy is based on knowledge through value added products, be it in biotechnology, communication, transports, aviation or computers. To take advantage of these opportunities, you have to study hard, you have to concentrate your efforts to reach the highest level of excellence and you have to become the best in your field of activities.
Canada is the best place in the world to fulfil your dreams. All levels of government have recently taken bold initiatives to assure that we will be at the rendezvous for the new knowledge based economy.
Although Canada has vast natural resources, it is not sufficient to meet the challenges of the 21st century on the world market. We praise governments for having decided to invest in education and research. The time has never been better to adopt scientific careers. The excitement and the chances of discoveries have never been so high. Please come on board and join us in sharing the new opportunities in all fields of scientific endeavours.
Avant de terminer, je veux m'adresser aux membres du corps professoral et partager quelques impressions actuelles concernant nos universités et nos institutions de haut savoir.
The members of our faculties have the unique opportunity to experience full academic freedom. This is part of our professorial privileges and prerogatives. Academic freedom is a fundamental asset without which great developments would not have occurred, and we must ensure that this freedom continues to be protected.
Without this freedom, your colleagues Choy Hew and Garth Fletcher would not have made the astonishing discovery of the antifreeze protein that permits fish to survive in the cold waters of the North Atlantic.
Without academic freedom, Barbara McClintock would not have discovered the jumping genes so soon. She was so far ahead of her times, that many geneticists had trouble accepting her results. Without this freedom, Banting, Best and McLeod would not have isolated so rapidly the miraculous insulin which has saved millions of lives and improved the well-being of patients who suffer from diabetes mellitus.
Without this freedom, Fleming would not have noticed the effects of penicillin in his bacterial cultures; nor would Jenner and Pasteur have developed the method of vaccination.
Without this academic freedom, Sydney Altman would not have discovered the ribozyme and Michael Smith of UBC would not have developed site-directed mutagenesis for which they received the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1989 and 1993 respectively.
The judicious use of this academic freedom has given us the opportunity to have a high level of credibility with the public at large. We must preserve this credibility and nurture this trust by maintaining the highest standards of conduct in our scientific activities. We must teach our students to respect this precious legacy so that this treasure will continue to be protected.
In biomedical research, we have the opportunity to participate in a sector vital to the future of mankind. It is an integral part of a broad set of factors, one, which addresses social, economical and intellectual imperatives and greatly benefits humanity.
The pursuit of biomedical research demands exceptional intellectual rigor that nevertheless gives rein to wisdom, perception and logic. It is a necessity that constantly meets with happy strokes of luck and large doses of serendipity.
Perhaps it will give us the opportunity to rub shoulders with other Flemings, other Pasteurs and other Jenners, Bantings and Bests, including Pierre Deniker, who discovered neuroleptics, René T. Laennec, inventor of the stethoscope, and William Whitering, who came upon the fundamentals of digitalis.
I call upon all of you to actively participate in the great developments, which are lying ahead of us. I urge you to maximize your skills, to prove to the world around you that Canadians, women and men of all ages, can meet the challenges of the new millenium with confidence and enthusiasm.
A nouveau, je veux remercier les autorités de l'Université Memorial pour la confiance qu'ils m'accordent and for the warmth of this wonderful ceremonial occasion.
I wish good luck to all the new graduates in their future careers. I hope they will attain the highest level of excellence and that they will obtain all the success they so richly deserve.
In closing, I praise you the parents for supporting your children in pursuing advanced education. You deserve to be singled out as important facilitators for the present and future endeavours of your children. As Marie and Willie Chrétien 45 years ago, you ought to be congratulated for your wisdom, your generosity, and your patience. Thank you for your attention and good afternoon.