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Peter Lewin: The Canadian Indiana Jones

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It is a common tradition within Judaism to recognize those who passed away near or around the anniversary of their deaths. On June 7, 2005, Peter Lewin, a little known doctor and scientist died all-too-young. Yet his story is the stuff of movies.

2012-06-14-PeterLewin.jpg Dr. Peter Lewin

Though a pediatrician by trade, he was a pioneer in the field of paleopathology, a field that employs modern medical investigative techniques to unlock secrets within human remains.

Born in Jerusalem in 1935 Peter was the first son of a prominent Jewish-German couple that had fled Germany when the Nazis seized power in 1933. When war broke out Peter's father, a psychiatrist, joined the British war effort and was stationed in Alexandria, Egypt. After the war, the family remained in Alexandria and Peter attended Victoria College, a private school modeled on British boys' schools such as Eton. Interestingly amongst his school mates was Hussein Talal who many years later would be crowned King Hussein of Jordan.

Peter Lewin was an unassuming man with great charm and a professional history heroic in its proportions. A pediatrician trusted by his patients, few knew that this kind and genteel man with an old world charm hid an Indiana Jones persona.

His work had included applying electron microscopy to the mummified corpse of pharaoh Ramses V in research that suggested that the markings on the 3,000-year-old skin were evidence of small pox.

And this was not the first time Peter had ventured through time to uncover mummified secrets. A few years earlier Peter, using a CT scanner and a 3D computer system, was able to unwrap another 3,000-year-old mummy, if only on a computer screen. Without disturbing the young woman dead and preserved over the millennia Lewin through computer imaging unwrapped the mummy to its skin, bones and internal organs. He was even able to determine how the young woman died.

Incredibly such a procedure was not new for Peter who in the mid 1970s scanned the brain of Nakht, a 14-year-old Egyptian weaver who also died 3,000 years ago in imaging experiments then in its infancy.

In another study Peter had lead a team investigating a lock of Napoleon's hair with the novel technique of neutron activation analysis. This study determined that arsenic levels in the hair sample were normal; thereby debunking the long held belief that Napoleon was the victim of arsenic poisoning.

And there was more; in 1997 Dr. Peter Lewin found himself in the tiny Norwegian mining town of Longyearbyen. Peter was part of a Canadian-lead team of scientists that would be exhuming the remains of six Norwegian men, all victims of the 1918 flu pandemic.

Longyearbyen is a remote place. Located on an island just 1,300 km from the North Pole, the team had chosen this site hoping that the remains of the flu victims would be found deep enough within the tundra to have remained frozen for the 80 years since their internment.

By extracting frozen tissue from the lungs of the miners, the team hoped to study viable samples of the virus that had caused the death of 60-million people worldwide, thereby gaining insight into how another such catastrophe might be averted.

Peter had served in the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps, and received numerous decorations including the Order of Military Merit. He was a founding member of the International Paleopathology Association, a patron of the arts who did much to promote and support the work of several First Nations Canadian artists. He had published over one hundred scientific papers including work on prions, the infectious particles responsible for illnesses such as Mad Cow Disease which had earned him an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of Scientific quotation.

And in 1975 he had been honorary physician to the Queen Mother during a royal visit to Canada.

As it goes with science, Peter's work did not always yield results. The expedition to Longyearbyen ultimately proved to be something of a disappointment. Tissue samples were inadequately frozen to yield viable samples of the virus. Peter would not have been overly discouraged. Indeed, there was little that could diminish Peter's exuberance and enthusiasm for all facets of his life. Even in the face of an aggressive cancer that led to his death in 2005 at age 69 Peter continued on as if nothing was amiss.

Amidst all of his achievements it was easy to forget that for over forty years Peter Lewin had been a practicing pediatrician. In comforting sleep deprived, confused first-time parents many have never forgotten his words of wisdom and experience "just love your baby" he would tell them. May his memory be forever blessed.

This article was co-authored with Dr. Michael Taylor a dear friend of Peter's.