Congregation Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem on Baily Road in Côte Saint-Luc was filled to capacity on April 14 as funeral services were held for world renowned HIV/AIDS researcher and McGill professor Dr. Mark Wainberg. He died tragically earlier in the week in Bal Harbour, Florida where the medical examiner confirmed he suffered an asthma attack while swimming in the ocean.
Wainberg's son Zev, with his voice breaking, told everyone how he swam out to his father and pulled him onto the beach to try and save him.
Dr. Wainberg, 71, was described as work-a-holic who visited an incredible 120 countries as part of his fight against AIDS. At the time of his death he was lead investigator at the Lady Davis Institute for Medical Research at the Jewish General Hospital and director of the McGill University AIDS Centre.
Despite his hectic schedule, Dr. Wainberg was very much a devoted family man. He had in fact taken a step back in recent years, buying a condominium in Bal Harbour with his wife Susan and joining the local synagogue. With his two sons and their families living in Los Angeles and London respectively, the Wainbergs decided that they would spend Passover together in Bal Harbour. What began as a beautiful family bonding experience ended in tragedy.
“One of my dad’s joys was going into the ocean, which he did every day,” said Zev. “He used to tell me that the ocean gave him so much joy. As I went into the ocean and tried to save him, I knew Hashem was taking him away.”
Rabbi Yechezkel Freundlich only arrived at TBDJ last August, succeeding Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz who had been at the pulpit for 20 years. He nonetheless got to know Dr. Wainberg. “He was active, vibrant and still in the prime of his life and his career,” he said.
Rabbi Steinmetz, who now presides over a congregation in New York City, was unable to make it to the funeral. He sent a message Rabbi Freundlich read. “Mark was the president of TBDJ when I arrived and spoke at my farewell,” the message read. “Today the world has lost a man whose equal cannot be found.”
Zev Wainberg acknowledged that the family is still in shock. “The world has lost someone special,” he said. “My father was a unique individual. How many people in this world can say their work saved millions of lives? His success grew and grew. He was a prolific writer, with 700 manuscripts and dozens of op ed pieces."
In my role as a Cote Saint-Luc city councillor I was pleased to be part of a ceremony at City Hall just over a year ago where we recognized Dr. Wainberg for his donation of a 150 year old Torah to a municipality-founded Ethiopian synagogue in Jerusalem to honour the memory of a 16-year-old who was murdered during the Israeli capital’s annual Gay Pride Parade. Dr. Wainberg completed his post-doctoral research at the Hebrew University Hadassah Medical School.
Zev Wainberg revealed it will be that sefer Torah his son Jake will read from in June at his bar mitzvah. “It breaks my heart (my father) will not be there at that event,” he said.
Dr. Roderick R. McInnes, the Director of the Lady Davis Institute of the JGH and the successor to Dr. Wainberg in that role, said “there was not a single AIDS researcher in the world who did not know who Mark Wainberg was. There are more than 35 million people in the world and 75,000 in Canada with HIV. They are all indebted to Mark. Without him, this epidemic would be a lot worse.”
Judah Aspler, the president of TBDJ, grew up in the Wainberg household as a friend of Zev and his brother John. He said that Dr. Wainberg was a fabulous mentor as he assumed the presidency of the synagogue. “Our community is at a loss and our grief is enormous.”
A trailblazer in HIV/AIDS research, Dr. Wainberg was internationally recognized for his role in the discovery in 1989 of 3TC or Lamivudine, an anti-viral drug which is used in combination with other medications to treat infections caused by HIV.
Dr. Wainberg served as president of the International AIDS Society from 1998 to 2000. He also helped organize the 13th International Congress on AIDS in Durban, South Africa in 2000 and the 16th congress, in Quebec City, in 2006.
Among Dr. Wainberg’s many honours were:
• Officer of the Order of Canada
• Officer of the National Order of Quebec
• Chevalier in France’s Legion of Honour
• fellow of the Royal Society of Canada
• honourary fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada
• member of the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame
• recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Association of Medical Microbiology and Infectious Disease Canada
• recipient of the 2012 Killam Prize for Health Science, one of Canada’s most significant awards
In observance of Dr. Wainberg’s passing, the McGill flag has been lowered to half-staff at the JGH.
Linda Farha, who established the HIV/AIDS support group the Farha Foundation with her brother Ron, said: “Dr. Wainberg was exceptional in every respect. His presence and impact in my family's life and that of my late brother's will never be forgotten. He will be missed by the HIV/AIDS community in Montreal and around the world. My thoughts and prayers are with his family through this difficult time."
Researcher Rafick Pierre Sekaly added: “As soon as I started my career in HIV in Canada, Mark was one of my most precious collaborator, an unbiased advisor who taught me how to navigate through the meanders of the politics of Canadian science, a fan and a friend for 30 years. Mark made important and seminal contributions to everything he got involved in from science to mentorship to the politics of science and the politics of patient care nationally and internationally. Mark was the most forceful advocate of HIV research in Canada. Thanks to his constant efforts several of us had constant funding and were able to contribute to science. His battles with the different levels of government were epic and always made a positive difference. Mark was an incredible and generous mentor with very successful scientists coming out of his lab. Mark was a tireless advocate of French in science. This won him the respect of all levels of the Quebec society; from broken French 25 years ago to fully fluent Francophone, this testifies to Mark’s genuine efforts to do good and be good.”