Colin E. Webber
1942 – 2012
Professor, Physicist, Radiation Safety Expert, Researcher, Teacher, Mentor, and most importantly loyal friend; that was Colin Webber to the McMaster University and Hamilton hospital community.
Colin obtained his first degree from the Honours School of Physics at the University of Birmingham in 1963; this was followed by a Masters in Biochemistry in 1969 and a PhD in Physics in 1981 , both from the University of Surrey. From 1964 onwards, he held hospital positions in medical physics in London, England and Southampton, England. It was in London where Colin first met and worked with Dr. Steve Garnett and when Dr. Garnett was recruited to join McMaster’s Faculty of Medicine and McMaster University Medical School in 1969, he wisely persuaded Dean John Evans to appoint Colin as Lecturer in the Department of Radiology of the fledgling medical school. At the same time Colin was appointed as physicist in Nuclear Medicine at McMaster University Medical Centre.
Colin’s inquisitive mind and determination ensured a successful research career. His CV documents the awarding of 15 peer-reviewed research grants totalling $5.6M as either principal investigator or co-investigator in the last 10 years, alone. From 1970 to 2010 he served as the principal supervisor of 34 M.Sc. students and 14 Ph.D. students, and sat on many more graduate student committees. At the time of his death he had been the author or co-author of 180 peer reviewed publications and 4 book chapters, with one final article still in press to be published later this year. Of course this enumeration does not include the countless additional students and researchers to whom Colin generously provided advice and support as they pursued their studies.
Colin was a leader in the field of bone research and in many instances he was a man who was ahead of his time. His endless enthusiasm for the science and learning was an inspiration to students and faculty. Indeed Colin developed a method of applying Compton scattering for measuring trabecular bone mass in the calcaneus well before commercial techniques for measuring bone mass had been developed. He had a student develop a prototypical model of a dual photon absorptiometry unit with minimal resources as a part of a PhD project at a time when huge resources were being spent to develop these types of units commercially. Because of his knowledge in the field, he had access to and helped to bring many of the novel measurement techniques, including the first pQCT and pMRI units to McMaster University. These units are now being more widely used by university centres interested in bone and joint research across Canada. As a result of this expertise Colin was elected to the Scientific Advisory Council of Osteoporosis Canada.
Colin was responsible for developing the “Bone Interest Group” in Hamilton. This was a diverse group of academics interested in the field of bone research. The group included nuclear physicists, engineers, kinesiologists, dieticians and nutrition scientists, rehabilitation scientists, medical scientists, nuclear medicine specialists, radiologists, physiatrists, geriatricians orthopedic surgeons and rheumatologists and all of their attendant graduate students. Quarterly meetings were held, providing researchers and their graduate students with a forum to present their research interests and results. During these meetings Colin often asked the astute questions that would provide perspective to the project and would offer advice that would make a good project great.
Colin also provided leadership as part of a monthly MRI users group and provided practical advice around a wide variety of musculoskeletal projects. In addition he met on a weekly basis with those students involved with musculoskeletal research providing guidance and an extra educational opportunity. He had patience for all of those students who would contact him. He challenged individuals to think and to have the commitment and courage to embark on novel projects.
Although Colin was recruited to the Department of Radiology and was based in Nuclear Medicine, he also had a profound effect on the development of Health Physics, Medical Physics and Radiation Biology at McMaster University. He was a key member of a group of faculty who launched graduate and undergraduate programmes in these subject areas from the Department of Physics in the Faculty of Science at McMaster in the mid 1970s. He led the further development of these programmes through much of the 1980s, supervised many graduate students in for example, the MSc in Health and Radiation Physics and taught graduate level courses, of which “Isotopes In Vivo” was perhaps the classic. Colin also had a significant influence on the development of the profession of Medical Physics in Canada. He was one of the founding fellows of the Canadian College of Physicists in Medicine. Amongst his many grants and research contracts was one from the Ontario Ministry of Labour, which enabled him to set up the first bone lead laboratory in Canada. Through this and subsequent work, McMaster remains a premier centre for this work, with individual patients coming from as far as South Australia and a significant partnership with Health Canada on bone lead now reaching its culmination. In a similar vein, in the past few years, Colin had been advocating for the establishment of a strontium measurement facility at McMaster and he stimulated the drawing together of the team that is now exploiting this aspect of Colin’s vision. This illustrates one way in which Colin’s great legacy continues to gain momentum.
Finally, Colin possessed a rare ability to draw individuals together and encourage them to work as a team in the best interests of the program, institution or patient. He encouraged all who worked with him, whether a student, professional colleague, or administrative assistant to aim just a little higher. He was a source of sage advice and a constant calm presence within what can be a challenging environment. A kind gentle giant in the field of musculoskeletal research, neither he nor his many contributions will be forgotten and, perhaps most importantly, his work will continue to live through the on-going efforts of the many students whom he taught.
Karen Y. Gulenchyn