A Tribute to Clyde Hertzman

The Royal Society of Canada and the fellowship have been profoundly saddened by the passing of Dr. Clyde Hertzman, FRSC. In delivering the 2011 RSC Governor General Lecture Series throughout Canada, Fellows and Canadians from coast to coast were confronted with his astonishing capacity for communicating complex science. In addition, Dr. Hertzman served as the Co-Chair of the RSC/CAHS Expert Panel on Early Childhood Development, which was published in November, 2012. While all Fellows join in mourning his passing, his friend and colleague Dr. Bryan Kolb, FRSC, has been kind enough to prepare an elegy.


A personal Tribute to Clyde Hertzman, MD, FRSC, OC (1953-2013)

Bryan Kolb, University of Lethbridge

As we progress through life, there are always a few individuals who change us and challenge us to up our game.  Dr. Clyde Hertzman was one of those individuals.  Clyde passed away suddenly in February, 2013, just shy of his 60th birthday, shortly after receiving the Order of Canada.

I first met Clyde about 15 years ago at a meeting of the Population Health panel of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (now CIFAR).  Our relationship continued through occasional meetings of that panel and then more over the past 10 years in the Experience Based Brain and Biological Development panel at CIFAR.  Several features of Clyde’s remarkable presence stand out.  He never wore suits or ties and always had a memory stick on a lanyard around his neck.  At panel meetings he was always the first to ask questions of speakers, usually within the first two minutes of their presentations, and was always quick to admit his ignorance and ask for help on complex issues.  This trait put everyone else at ease because typically there were many of us with the same misgivings.  Basic scientists attempt to generalize to real world questions but typically fall short because they often do not grasp the breadth of real world issues.  Clyde excelled in understanding how real experiences affect physical and mental health of people and could immediately see the implications of basic science to his world.  He did this with such enthusiasm that it sometimes left one breathless as he rattled off studies and examples with such speed that your head spun.  But this was empowering. It framed basic science questions in a different way and forced us lab scientists to rethink what we were doing and why it was important.  Research on the effects of early experience on brain development was radically changed by his insights, yet his role is invisible except to those who knew him.

Clyde coined the term “biological embedding” to refer to the process by which early experiences get under the skin to change the trajectory of physical and mental health for a lifetime. This general idea was not new but Clyde used the world as his lab to demonstrate it. As an example, nearly every child in British Columbia (identified only by postal code) was a subject in a longitudinal study of how socioeconomic status (inferred by neighborhood) influenced school performance, health, and well-being for a lifetime. He was fascinated by what he called the off-diagonals, namely those children who did better or worse than would be predicted, which led him to initiate studies with epigeneticists. His lab was not just Canada, however but the entire world as he sought to understand how to improve the lives and life trajectories of disadvantaged children.

Losing Clyde was part of a double whammy for those of us studying early experience and brain development. Clyde was Fraser Mustard’s long-time protégé and obvious successor when Fraser died a year earlier in 2011. We are left with a vacuum that will be hard to fill. We have lost formidable brainpower and his unique way of looking at the world. The losers are not only his friends and colleagues but the children of the world whose lives were being improved by his creative insights and innovations.