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Morley Hollenberg: The family tradition of entering into medicine continued

By GERRY POSNER Has there ever been a run of doctors in one family like the Hollenbergs? Just as, at one time,, if you thought of baseball champions, the New York Yankees would come to mind, so too it is with medicine and the Hollenberg family.
There sure were – and are, a lot of Hollenbergs who went into medicine. Looking at Eva Wiseman’s history of Manitoba Jewish physicians, ”Healing Lives,” offers a long list of Hollenbergs in the field.
Just think about such legendary names in the original generation of Hollenberg physicians: Mike, Abe, Joe, Charles and the youngest brother in the mix, Jake. As well, there were two women physicians who married into the family: Esther (Gorsey), married to Jake; and Dorothy (Osovsky), married to Joe.
From the five physician brothers flowed yet another eight doctors: Murray and Joan, children of Mike; Morley, son to Jake; Charles, Martin and Barbara, children of Abe; and Joanna and Robert, children of Joe.
Add to those names a member of the third generatiion of Hollenberg doctors: Abe’s grandson, Anthony , now head of the Department of Medicine at Boston University School of Medicine. As well, there are many other practicing Hollenberg physicians apart from the Winnipeg clan who are related.You get the picture.

With all of these accomplished Hollenbergs engaged in medical practices, one of them though took a different route in his career: Morley Hollenberg. He ended up in the research part of the profession rather than in medical practice.  His contributions in research are staggering and still continue to this day.
Now, for those of us who are not part of a family business, it might be hard to wrap your head around the pressure, whether direct or indirect, to continue in the business. Morley seemed to have no issues with proceeding the way he did, but perhaps that is because he was so well grounded prior to entering medicine.

Morley’s early days, as for many others in Winnipeg were spent in the north end of the city, from 1942-1954, after which time Morley’s family moved south to 150 Waverley Street, which is where Morley’s brother Walter and sister Dorie grew up. Morley was a graduate of Queenston School, Robert H. Smith  and later Kelvin High School.  He continued at the University of Manitoba in the Honours Chemistry Programme that likely was the foundation of his success in the sciences.
But, he was also well rounded as he participated in the University Glee Club producing Broadway musicals ( I can vouch for that fact as he was with me in “Guys and Dolls”), also rowing with  the Winnipeg Rowing Club. The result of Morley’s accomplishments, even in those early days, was recognized with his being awarded a Rhodes Scholarship, given for excellence in academia and outside interests.

It was then that the true depth of the Hollenberg medical talent started to emerge. From 1964-1968 Morley was at Oxford University in the Department of Pharmacology, working in the area of molecular pharmacology. He ended up with a Ph.D from Oxford. From there he went with his wife – the love of his life, Joan (née Omson), also of Winnipeg, to Baltimore, to attend Johns Hopkins Medical School.
Morley remained there for 11 years, from 1968-1979, which is where he obtained his medical degree and did his internship along with further research training.
Clearly, Morley was successful at Johns Hopkins since, during his tenure there, he was both an Assistant Professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics from 1973-1979 and an Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at the Hopkins Department of Medicine from 1974-79. Some of his work there contributed in an integral way to the 1986 Nobel Prize won by Stanley Cohen of Vanderbilt University.

In 1979 Hollenberg accepted a position as Department Head at the University of Calgary to develop a new area of molecular pharmacology in the Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics. The lab Morley was associated with thrived and became famous for research into the area of hormone action in inflammatory disease.
That headship lasted for 11 years, until 1989. During the period from 1979 right up until the present, a span of 44 years, Morley has, in addition to maintaining  his research programme, provided mentorship and guidance for graduate trainees for their MSc and PhD degrees, as well as for the younger faculty in their career development.
From 1980 right to the present, Morley has led a nationally funded research program investigating inflammatory disease and the training of undergraduates in that area.
Moreover, from 1999- 2022, it was Hollenberg who was the driving force behind the combined MD-PhD-MSc Leaders in Medicine program at the University of Calgary, from which many graduates have now assumed faculty positions in the Faculty of Medicine in Calgary.
Even with all the illustrious careers of so many Hollenberg doctors, Morley Hollenberg has truly achieved a tremendous level of accomplishment.

With all of that, there is yet another side to Dr. Morley Hollenberg, one that you would not expect. It became almost an alternative career: art. What began at age 10 under the guidance of a New York aunt, Morley rediscovered with a passion in Calgary and, in 1985, with the help of Master Chin Shek Lam and a close friend, Jack Wise, Morley began creating free-form Chinese brush calligraphy which, on the surface, would seem to be quite a distance from pharmacology.
As Morley puts it, “This art form represents for me an ideal medium for the visual expression of Nature’s secrets.”  More significantly, in a way that links Morley’s work with his artistic passion, Morley says that “The brush strokes record visual images coming from the natural environment that surrounds us and from the microscopic world that is the subject of my scientific world.”
The result is that, even today, Morley continues both to conduct research at the University of Calgary Faculty of Medicine and, at the same time, to work as an artist in his home studio. As Morley reflects on the main areas of activity in his life, aside from Joan and his two children, son Daniel Hollenberg (who resides in Winnipeg) and his daughter Elisa, of Toronto (not to forget the grandchildren in Daniel’s family, Mira and Isaac, now in Winnipeg), he says: “ I have begun a series of Mandala paintings, inspired by the images of the cells expressing the dually-tagged receptors that are the focus of my research.” And, he adds, “ The mandalas I paint reflect the cell images and match the photographs I take wherein mandala images appear. I find there is a common source of creativity both in the doing of science and the creation of visual art.”

Not many of us (Are there any?) can take our professional work and merge it with another passion to create a combination of two worlds. I suspect none of the previous Hollenberg medical stars ever reached the Morley Hollenberg level of success in both the sciences and the arts. Morley is grateful for it all.

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