Humour, Patience and Brilliance: A Personal Reflection on the Late Mladen Vranic

Jul 2, 2019
Professor Patricia Brubaker

Prof. Patricia Brubaker hoods Prof. Emeritus Mladen Vranic at honorary degree ceremonyProf. Patricia Brubaker hoods Prof. Emeritus Mladen Vranic at honorary degree ceremony
I was nervous walking into the office of the venerable Mladen Vranic for the first time. It was 1982. As a soon-to-be PhD, I had absolutely no experience in his area of research, which at that time focused on exercise and metabolism in diabetes. 

I did, however, have a guaranteed postdoctoral fellowship in hand, as well as some experience relevant to Mladen’s long-time interest in extra-pancreatic glucagon. Based on that, he graciously agreed to take me into his lab as a post-doctoral fellow where I worked and learned for three years.

During that time, Mladen demonstrated to me the essential qualities that made him an outstanding research supervisor: he encouraged me to follow my dreams; he supported me without hesitation even when he had no idea what avenues I was pursuing; and he never reacted in anger but, indeed, demonstrated both humour and gentle patience even within the chaos that occasionally surrounded him in his very active research lab.

When it came time for me to seek a faculty position, Mladen generously “gave” me the project I had been working on, so it could form the basis of my own independent research lab. Without ever preaching, Mladen thus imparted many lessons about being a good graduate supervisor. 

Hired as the last postdoctoral fellow of Charles Best in the Department of Physiology, Mladen’s research focused on insulin action and glucose metabolism in exercise and diabetes in vivo, which was recognized by the most important national and international organizations in the field, including the American Diabetes Association, the American Physiological Society, and the European Association for the Study of Diabetes.

He was an impressive scientist, collaborating throughout his career with a worldwide “Who’s Who” of diabetes research. With the exception of Banting, Best and MacLeod, Mladen stands as the most decorated scientist to have graced the Department of Physiology at the University of Toronto. He received numerous honorary degrees, the Order of Ontario and the Order of Canada, and he was inducted into both the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame and the Royal Society of Canada, to name but a few of his honours. 

Mladen was a life-long mentor, training more than 50 graduate students and fellows from Canada, the US, Europe and Japan, thereby creating an international legacy through the ongoing research of his many trainees, including (to name but a few):

  • Alan Cherrington, his first PhD student, former department chair, Vanderbilt University and President, American Diabetes Association
  • Diane Finegood, inaugural director, CIHR Institute of Nutrition, Metabolism and Diabetes
  • Simon Fisher, currently department chair, University of Utah
  • Ryuzo Kawamori, his first postdoctoral fellow, former department chair, Juntendo University
  • André Marette, institute director, Laval University
  • Jerry Radziuk, professor at University of Ottawa
  • Zhiqing (Jim) Shi, vice president, REMD Biotherapeutics Inc.
  • David Wassserman, Annie Mary Lyle Chair and Director, Mouse Metabolic Phenotyping Center, Vanderbilt University

Professor Emeritus Mladen VranicProfessor Emeritus Mladen Vranic But Mladen was so much more than a scientist — he was a Renaissance man. His passion for music and opera ran deep. His home was filled with many fine examples of painting and sculpture including, most notably, works by Croatian artists. Indeed, his knowledge of all things Croatian was prodigious, even extending to football as evidenced by his enthusiasm for the Croatian team that played in the World Cup soccer games last summer.

He also loved motion pictures, although we often disagreed about the distinction between a movie and a film — in my mind, at least, the former being entertaining and much less serious than the latter, but both being equal in Mladen’s opinion.

Mladen also loved to travel to new places and often stayed for several days beyond a scientific conference to experience the culture of a new city. To his last days, he spent hours enriching his knowledge, reading newspapers, listening to audio books and, always, asking for updates about his colleagues in the Department of Physiology, the Banting and Best Diabetes Centre, and the Division of Endocrinology, including Adria Giacca, Amira Klip, Gary Lewis, Stephen Matthews, Michael Riddell, George Steiner, Cecil Yip and Bernie Zinman.

Finally, above all, Mladen adored and treasured his family. He passed away on June 18, 2019 and will be dearly missed. Donations made in his memory will be gratefully received by the Banting and Best Diabetes Centre. (Please indicate that “the donation is being made in the memory of Mladen Vranic”). 


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