EDITH MANKIEWICZ, 1910-2006
For 60 years, she was on the cutting edge of science. She taught medicine in France and China, directed two Montreal hospitals and published 100 papers — all after fleeing the Nazis in Germany
Special to The Globe and Mail
TORONTO — In the early 1930s, two women came in contact in Leipzig, Germany. One was a young medical student, the other a tuberculosis patient whose eyes were burning hot.
“I do not want to die, I cannot die, I have a child,” the woman cried. But the student knew there was no hope. Without thinking of the personal risk, she mixed the patient’s sputum with her own tears and preserved them between two slides.
“I knew then, without a doubt, that I would never forget her, that my work as a physician would be in the laboratory, and that one day I would work in tuberculosis,” Dr. Edith Mankiewicz was to write later in her unpublished French-language memoirs.
Her distinguished career more than fulfilled that vow. For nearly six decades until her retirement in 1991, Dr. Mankiewicz was on the cutting edge of microbiology, specializing in pulmonary diseases. She taught medicine and conducted research in France, China and Canada, directed laboratories at two Montreal hospitals and published more than 100 scientific papers. Her works brought advances in tuberculosis prevention and treatment during her lifetime and continue to inspire international medical research.
Away from the microscope, her life story is one of danger, tragedy, heroism and courage. Considered Jewish by the Nazi authorities, she fled to France and then to Shanghai, only to be exposed to bombings and privations caused by the Japanese. She was twice hospitalized with tuberculosis contracted in the laboratory. And she saw her son, Quebec film director Francis Mankiewicz, die when he was 49.
Yet, throughout it all, she retained a passion for research, enthusiasm for life, and her sense of humour. Dr. Gerald Berry, her boss for a period when she directed the microbiology laboratory at Lakeshore General Hospital on Montreal’s West Island, recalls “a wiry little customer” who “smoked like a chimney” and had shortness of breath, but worked vigorously. Her research into Bacille Calmette-Guérin vaccine was directly applied to TB prevention in Europe, he says.
On the other hand, little use was made of her work on bacteriophages when it was first published, says Dr. Hans-Wolfgang Ackermann of Laval University. But with today’s overuse of antibiotics, it is being resurrected in the search for an alternate way to fight bacterial infections. Prof. Andre Gorski, director of the Institute of Immunology and Experimental Therapy in Wroclaw, Poland, says the impetus for his current research came from a paper published by Dr. Mankiewicz and M. Liivak in the journal Nature in the 1960s.
The daughter of Maximilien Meyer, a doctor, and Gertrud Kaul, a nurse, it seemed natural that young Edith and her older sister, Margaret, would study medicine. Edith graduated in 1933, the same year she married Harald (Rene) Mankiewicz, at that time the youngest judge in Germany. Two months later, the couple fled to France because of threats resulting from the judge’s sentencing of Nazi supporters.
She and her husband both redid their studies in France, with Edith receiving her second medical degree from the University of Lyon. From 1939 to 1941, she served as physician-in-chief at the Children’s Hospital in Tulins. She gave birth to a daughter, Jacqueline, in 1940. But the German occupation of France brought new danger.
In her memoirs, Dr. Mankiewicz wrote that one day, as Nazi troops marched by, some children shouted: “The Boches are coming,” using a common French pejorative for Germans. “They only wanted to give a warning, but the soldiers started to shoot. I cannot wipe out of my mind the image of these little bodies, mutilated, this slaughter of innocent children.”
Finding themselves suddenly blacklisted in France, the couple moved to a seemingly safe destination, the French concession in Shanghai. From 1941 to 1945, Dr. Mankiewicz worked there as professor of microbiology at Aurore University. She was also named “interim director” at the city’s Pasteur Institute. It was a time of urgency and hard work. According to Dr. Véronique Porret, whose mother and grandmother were in Shanghai at the time, Dr. Mankiewicz set up a gynecology service for girls raped by Japanese soldiers; established an adoption service for abandoned children; and created a private medical laboratory to provide work for Jewish physicians who were otherwise confined to a ghetto. Not only that, but in 1944 she gave birth to her son, Francis.
With the Second World War raging and Shanghai under Japanese occupation, daily life was disrupted by bombings, blackouts and shortages.
Jacqueline Mankiewicz Smith, Dr. Mankiewicz’s daughter, recalls: “Once the sirens had stopped, it was Mother’s duty — as part of the medical corps — to go out and check the neighbourhood in order to alert the emergency personnel and firefighters as to the location of the most injured. A silent hero in this story was my father, who insisted on accompanying her on those dangerous missions.”
With the end of the war, the couple and their two children moved to Montreal, where Edith’s parents and her sister, Dr. Margaret Kunstler, had already taken up residence. In Canada, she took her medical training for the third time.
From 1947 to 1950, she worked as a research associate in microbiology at McGill University. Then misfortune struck again. She contracted TB and spent a year in a sanatorium (another bout was to interrupt her work a couple of years later).
Undiscouraged, Dr. Mankiewicz pressed on. From 1951 to 1976, she was director of laboratories at the Royal Edward Chest Hospital, later known as the Montreal Chest Hospital. In 1955, she made headlines for showing how yeast cells could dramatically reduce the time required for a positive diagnosis of tuberculosis. In other research, she identified mycobacterial-like germs inside cancer tissue.
Then, at an age when most people retire, she became director of the microbiology laboratory at Lakeshore General Hospital, a position she held for 15 years. She also lectured on microbiology at McGill from 1962 to 1979.
Over the years, her advice and support encouraged many young people. One who credits her with shaping his career is virologist Alain Bouillant: “She was always busy, but she always had a few minutes for a very warm welcome.”
Meanwhile, Dr. Mankiewicz’s husband served for many years as legal adviser to the International Civil Aviation Organization, and taught law at McGill and at the University of Montreal. He died in 1993.
Even retirement at 80 didn’t slow her down. She continued to advise students, translate scientific papers into English and to provide sanctuary in Canada for a Shanghai woman who had been jailed for her religious and political views. The woman went on to become an expert in public health.
The death of her son from cancer in 1993 was a severe blow. One of his movies, Les Bons Debarras (Good Riddance) won eight Genie awards in 1981. Another, Les Portes Tournantes (The Revolving Doors), drew 10 Genie nominations in 1989. Family relationships were a central theme in his films.
In her son’s memory, Dr. Mankiewicz set up the non-profit Circle for Children Foundation that was dedicated to helping children in foster care. Her daughter, Jacqueline Mankiewicz Smith, a child psychologist, is program director.
Even in her 90s, Dr. Mankiewicz continued to be engaged. She read and discussed philosophy and current events. “First thing in the morning,” says Ms. Mankiewicz Smith, “she’d have thought up some important philosophical question during the night and we would have to discuss it at breakfast.”
During the cliffhanger 2000 U.S. election, Dr. Mankiewicz was president of the retirement residence where she lived. At one point, George Bush and Al Gore were reportedly separated by 250 votes in Florida. “There are 380 people in my manoir,” Dr. Mankiewicz told her granddaughter, Dawn Smith. “If my manoir were over there, it’d be finished.”
Christal Smith, another granddaughter, says Dr. Mankiewicz survived war, sickness and loss by remembering the beautiful moments from her past. She was also stubborn and willing to fight for justice. Fifty years after the Nazis took her childhood home, Dr. Mankiewicz successfully sued the German government for reparations. France awarded her the Cross of Lorraine for her wartime work.
**Edith Marion Mankiewicz
(nee Meyer) was born in Leipzig, Germany, on May 16, 1910.
She died of heart failure in Montreal on Sept. 21, 2006. She was 96. She leaves a daughter,
Jacqueline Mankiewicz Smith, and five grandchildren, Christal Smith, Dawn Smith, Vivian Ngo, Martin Mankiewicz and Gabrielle Mankiewicz.