On April 20th, 2006, Hubert Henri Marie Van Tol, former supervisor, mentor and friend, husband and father of three, was tragically killed in a traffic accident. He was 46 years old. This Tuesday, September the 5th, a memorial was held at The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, a teaching hospital affiliated with the University of Toronto, and the location of over 15 years of outstanding research from his lab, into the root causes of neurological and psychiatric disease. I worked there for three years, between January of 1997 and March of 2000.
The memorial, fittingly, focused largely on Huub’s scientific career, and featured speeches by figures from the various stages of his progression from graduate student at the University of Utrecht to his adoption early this year into the Department of Physiology at the University of Toronto. Much of Huub’s extended family were there, but did not speak; their grief was the focus of the funeral service earlier this year. This time, there were more laughs than tears, as the speakers picked and chose to illustrate their favourite ‘Huub moments’.
The ceremony was followed by a reception at the University of Toronto Faculty Club. Huub would probably have preferred us to have a few pints at the nearby Graduate Pub, but even he couldn’t get away with that now. I, unfortunately, missed the testimonial toasts and the invitation for anyone else to speak about Huub, his science, and their experiences with him. If I had been more organized, I would have written this earlier for a friend to present; as it is, I have published these thoughts here instead. Some of the events I would have chosen to relate were eloquently described during the ceremony, and I have either omitted them here, or encapsulated them in only a few lines. The speakers also spoke of his impressive scientific credentials and accomplishments; I have made no attempt to cover this extensive and impressive aspect of his life and career here. Many made mention of his infectious laugh, his ever-present smile, his hyperkinetic enthusiasm, and, if I may paraphrase the words of one, his healthy hatred for all things bureaucratic.
During my stay in Huub’s lab, I liked to tell people that he was a real ‘scientist’s scientist’. He seemed to like nothing better than reading scientific journals, discussing research findings, and playing with data. I’ve told the story over and over of how a technician in the lab, working early on a Saturday morning to finish up an experiment, got a phone call because Huub had just read an article in the latest issue of Nature, and, finding no-one nearby, phoned the lab on the off chance that somebody would be there that he could discuss it with. I’ve always like the image of Huub poring over Nature, a journal well-known for publishing highly significant but often deeply arcane scientific findings, while eating his breakfast, and champing at the bit to tell someone about the latest findings. Unfortunately, the technician in question doesn’t remember this event now, so perhaps this story is doomed to be apocryphal. Nevertheless, it sums up Huub’s attitude to science perfectly – everything was there to be digested, analyzed, critiqued and excited about. I was amused that several of the speakers at the ceremony made essentially the same comment – Huub was to many an enthusiastic source of information, critique and analysis of the latest findings. In a field as rapidly-moving and diverse as molecular neuropharmacology, he was a one-man data digest.
I am not the only one who remembers with fondness his half-joking forays into the lab, always beginning with one single word, uttered in his unapologetically Dutch accent: ‘Data?’ Huub loved experiments, the more elegant, the better, and was never more gratified when the answer was ‘yes, it’s done – come and see!’ Of course, this was seldom the answer he got. It never fazed him.
Huub suffered from a common affliction of investigators running their own labs, which I suspect is pandemic: he always underestimated the amount of time it would take to complete an experiment. To say that some of us would on occasion hide, if we knew that he was coming looking for ‘data’, is not, I confess, inaccurate.
I confess also to purposely avoiding Huub’s office as the end of the day approached. To bump into him at five in the afternoon was to be talking with him until six-thirty.
We also used to quake with fear when Huub, every six months or so, decided he needed to get back into the lab and do some experiments himself. This is nothing against him – students, fellows and technicians the world over have experienced this. Solutions get used up, equipment gets moved around, bench space becomes occupied, and general disruption ensues. Fortunately, Huub’s sojourns in the lab would last only a few weeks at a time, and then he would retreat to his office, to come up with the next big plan. To be fair, Huub had created a reputation as an excellent ‘bench’ scientist during his graduate school and postdoctoral days, and deservedly so, and this was spoken of by several of his former colleagues and supervisors. Maybe part of our reluctance to have him in the lab was rooted in the fear that he might show us up. For certain, we would never hear the end of it from Huub if he pulled off a successful experiment that others had failed to get to work.
I would not like anyone to think that working for Huub was not enjoyable – it was. He was the only supervisor I’ve ever had who not only condoned the playing of soccer in the lab, but on occasion even actively participated. He was the only one who, during the 1998 World Cup, would accompany the group to the nearby Graduate Students’ Union to watch the second half of every game. It never bothered him that the first half was watched on a rickety television in his lab, on the only local station it could pull in, a local multicultural station that often had commentary in languages that none of us could understand. He was the only one who once hid inside a cardboard box in the middle of the lab floor just to make us laugh at him. He was the only one who routinely drove me to a subway stop near his house, and convenient for me to get home, when we were both working late. Those drives are enjoyable memories, and even in this Huub’s personality showed through. He had found the quickest and easiest route through the subdivisions, and enthusiastically showed his satisfaction at even this ‘discovery’.
When I finally l decided to leave the lab and pursue an opportunity in industry, I felt apprehensive about telling him. I felt that he would be disappointed that I had decided not to remain with his group, or at the very least in academic research, and I dare say that he was. He didn’t show it though, and with good grace figuratively clapped me on the back and wished me well.
We all have critical times in our careers when we need advice on where to go next and how to accomplish our goals. Sometimes, we simply need reassurance that we are not making a catastrophic decision, or encouragement to take risks. When these decision points have come along in my own career, I have gone to a very short list of friends, peers and mentors for advice. Since I have known him, Huub had always been on that list. His mix of enthusiasm for science, easy-going personality, good humour and healthy skepticism always helped. That he also loved to talk didn’t hurt either.
I did not hear the news of Huub’s death immediately, being en route from Toronto to Montreal, and then driving to a conference in a resort town in the Laurentians. When I got to my room and turned my phone back on, there were three messages, all saying more or less the same thing. Over the next few days, I received at least a dozen voicemails and several email messages, from a wide variety of acquaintances, from the lab, neighbouring labs, and elsewhere in the city. It is, I think, a telling point that people who hadn’t worked for Huub for years, and some who never did but knew that I had, made the effort to find me and the other members of his extended scientific ‘family’. The funeral, and the memorial ceremony yesterday, were well-attended, fitting tributes to a good friend, incisive critic, and mentor.
University of Toronto
U of T Department of Pharmacology Graduate Students
Centre for Addiction and Mental Health
U of T Department of Psychiatry
Ghost bike memorial