John C. Roder (1950 -2018) : A Triumph of Mind

By Harold Atwood and John Georgiou

John Roder, FRSC, one of the brightest stars in the Toronto constellation of neuroscientists, died January 6th, 2018, at age 67, after a 22-year struggle with Huntington’s Disease. He was a Senior Scientist at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute of Mount Sinai Hospital, with collateral appointments at the University of Toronto in the Department of Molecular Genetics, the Department of Physiology, and the Institute for Medical Science; and he held a Canada Research Chair in Learning and Memory. Although his early scientific training and research were in the field of immunology, he changed his research endeavours to neuroscience in mid-career, determined to search for the causes of neurological and mental disorders. He had a personal reason for initiating a crusade of research in neuroscience, as his son had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. He was a brilliant innovator and made full use of his knowledge of molecular biology and genetics in tackling neurological disorders at the molecular, physiological, and behavioural levels. He succeeded in becoming a world leader in this field, and the discoveries emanating from his research laboratory included many relevant to schizophrenia and other neurological impairments.

The devastating diagnosis of Huntington’s Disease in 1995 at the peak of his research efforts did not cause him to stop his work. Remarkably, he continued to conduct his research laboratory and initiate world-class research with his students and post-doctoral fellows for many years. His physical condition deteriorated, but his mind was still very much there, as his associates and family can attest. They, and experts in the disease, surmise that his intense maintained mental efforts may have been responsible for slowing the progression of the disease. His engagement in research continued well past the time when the majority of victims would have left the scene. He was open about his condition and became an advocate and role model for those with mental and neurological disabilities, frequently giving interviews and appearing on TV to raise awareness of Huntington’s Disease. His courage in the face of devastating adversity is unforgettable. He will also be remembered, by those who knew him, for his generosity towards colleagues, his readiness to undertake joint research projects, and for his earlier adventures as a white-water canoeist who challenged some of Canada’s unforgiving rivers. Readiness to meet diverse challenges defined his life.

Links to John Roder’s efforts to raise awareness of Huntington’s disease have been posted by the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute: