Pat McGeer, UBC basketball legend, distinguished neuroscientist and B.C. cabinet minister, dead at age 95


Pat McGeer, a former BC Cabinet Secretary, stands over a model showing a proposed crossing from Greater Vancouver to Vancouver Island at his home in Vancouver August 5, 2008. He died on August 29 at the age of 95.Jeff Vinnick/The Globe and Mail

There are certain politicians who get pissed off at public outrage. Some duck for cover. Some become defensive.

Pat McGeer wasn’t one of them. According to former CBC journalist Greg Dickson, the BC cabinet minister and neuroscientist turned basketball star was not shy about insults and criticism. He readily agreed to participate in call-in radio shows to take the heat out of angry citizens.

When bumper stickers with the slogan “Stick it in your ear, McGeer” appeared in the 1970s in response to his unpopular decision to increase auto insurance premiums in the province, he responded with what Mr. Dickson describes as his signature joke; in the British Columbia legislature, he dryly warned of the dangers of sticking anything in anyone’s ears.

“He was a brave guy,” said Mr. Dickson. “He wasn’t afraid to stick his neck out.”

dr McGeer died on August 29 at the age of 95. According to his former political coordinator, Jane Burnes, his outlook on life was captured by the quotes he kept in a frame behind his desk. From science fiction author Robert Heinlein, they read: “Specialization is for insects” and “To enjoy the flavor of life, take big bites.” Moderation is for monks.”

He excelled as a basketball player. As a politician, he championed big ideas – many successful, others not. And as a researcher focused on Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative diseases, he’s been prolific.

Patrick McGeer was born on June 27, 1927 in Vancouver. His uncle, Gerry McGeer, was mayor of Vancouver from 1935 to 1936, serving as a member of parliament and a senator before being reelected mayor in 1947. His father, James McGeer, was a judge and his mother, Ada McGeer, was CBC’s first female producer.

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McGeer, seen in 1946, played for the University of British Columbia basketball team as a student and competed in the 1948 London Olympics.UBC SPORTS HALL OF FAME

His mother’s friend, Ethlyn Trapp, the first female president of both the BC Medical Association and the National Cancer Institute of Canada, encouraged his later interest in medicine.

But as he told Mr. Dickson, who recorded his personal story, his first love was basketball. As an undergraduate chemistry student, he played for the University of British Columbia basketball team. As a top scorer, he helped UBC defeat the Harlem Globetrotters, then considered the best team in the world. He traveled with his teammates across the Atlantic on an ocean liner that had been used during the war as a troop transport to attend the 1948 London Olympics. The team finished ninth despite including the best players from Vancouver and Montreal, largely because they had never had the opportunity to train together before.

After the Olympics, he studied chemistry at Princeton University, following in the footsteps of his older brother Peter. There he found himself between giants of science like Albert Einstein and the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Eugene Wigner.

After completing his PhD, he was hired by DuPont in Wilmington, Delaware in the early 1950s, at a time when the chemical company was recruiting chemistry graduates from across North America. One of the products he helped develop was Teflon. (Teflon was later linked to a massive corporate scandal involving a toxic compound used in its manufacture that does not decompose and is considered an “unperishable chemical.”)

While at DuPont, he met Edith Graef, a chemist who became his partner in marriage and research. The couple moved to Vancouver in 1954 so he could study medicine at UBC. He became a member of the academic faculty in 1960 and helped establish the university’s Department of Neuroscience.

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The McGeers entered neuroscience at a time when the fledgling field was brimming with new insights into how the brain works. in the The History of Neuroscience in Autobiography, the dr McGeer said they suspected in the late 1950s that biogenic amines, chemical compounds produced in the body, were central to neurotransmitters. The two focused on studying these signaling molecules. Her groundbreaking work on neurotransmitters and later on the role of neuroinflammation in neurodegeneration has been internationally recognized and widely cited. Their research earned the couple several awards, including a joint appointment as an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1995.

“What got him so excited was research and discovery,” said Ms. Burnes, who described him as the “best boss” she’s ever had. She became a close friend of the McGeer family.

When asked what he was most proud of, he probably would have said his family and partnership with his wife, Ms Burnes said. But then, she said, he would “draw on how many times he’s been cited in scholarly journals. And all of that was because of the things he discovered.”

He viewed entering politics as a way to contribute to public service while pursuing his research, Ms Burnes said. Elected to the Point Gray Riding in 1962, he later became leader of the BC Liberal Party before speaking out to join the Social Credit Party in 1975.

McGeer on the UBC basketball court on January 10, 2006. As the top scorer, he led the team to a famous victory over the Harlem Globetrotters, who happened to be the reigning professional world champions at the time.JOHN LEHMANN/The Globe and the Post

Although he was loyal to and supportive of his colleagues, he was not a partisan person, Ms Burnes said. In the Legislature dining room, all the members of the New Democratic Party sat at one table, the Liberals at another, and the Socreds at another, she recalled. But perhaps because he grew up in Vancouver at a time when the city was relatively small, and he knew and went to school with various elected officials, he was able to work and mingle with them all, she said.

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“He sat everywhere and talked to everyone,” she said. “He didn’t want to favor people from his own faction. He was there to help everyone and to listen to people.”

Some thought he was arrogant, but Ms Burnes said once people got to know him they would see that he had the knowledge and ability to back up his confidence.

As Minister for Universities, Science and Technology, he founded some of the province’s most important institutions, including the public broadcaster Knowledge Network and the Discovery Foundation, which were created to promote scientific and technological innovation. The latter included the creation of “discovery parks,” spaces near university and college campuses that encouraged companies to adopt and commercialize ideas from the post-secondary institutions. He also supported the province’s college system and the development of engineering schools at the University of Victoria and Simon Fraser University, Ms Burnes said.

Those efforts have had a lasting impact on BC, said David G. Harper, president and executive director of the Discovery Foundation.

“Employment is high and the technology sector is doing very well at the moment. And a lot of that is thanks to his vision 40 years ago,” said Dr. harpers

His visions were great and plentiful, but not all got off the ground. Perhaps most notable was his interest in building a permanent link between Vancouver and Vancouver Island, which included a stretch of tunnel and bridge. As Mr Dickson explained, it would have taken “a miracle worker” to enlist the support of Gulf Islanders to allow such a project to be built by their communities. But even last year he told Mr Dickson that he still believed that the fixed link would one day be built.

He has always believed in the scientific process and, in a recent conversation with Mr Dickson during the pandemic, shared that he was confident that any challenge could be met with science.

“Science always wins,” he told him.

He leaves behind his wife, Dr. Edith McGeer; their children Rick, Tad and Tori; and grandchildren, Rory, Owen, Sean, Kailee, Liam and Simone.



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