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Dr. George Karpati, Neuromuscular Expert, Dies

George Karpati, MD, an internationally renowned expert on neuromuscular disorders, died Feb. 6 at the age of 74, while attending a working dinner at the McGill University Faculty Club. He had been well the preceding evening.

A senior neurologist and neuroscientist, Dr. Karpati was the Izaak Walton Killiam Chair and Professor of Neurology at McGill University, where he worked for more than 40 years. His research on muscular dystrophy was recognized by numerous awards, including the Lifetime Achievement Award from the World Federation of Neurology (2006) and the Lifetime Achievement Award in Neuromuscular Research and Clinics from the Muscular Dystrophy Association of Canada in 2006. In 2005, he was appointed a Knight of the Ordre national du Quebec, one of the country's top honors, and he received the Wilder Penfield Prize for outstanding contributions to biomedical science in 2006.

Dr. Karpati's research resulted in more than 300 basic and clinical science papers and review articles, embracing multidisciplinary approaches in histology, cytochemistry, molecular biology, and stem cell transfer. He edited and co-authored five major books on neuromuscular disorders, including the textbook Pathology of Skeletal Muscle (Oxford University Press 2001), considered a classic in the field.

Among his achievements, he was the first to report in 1988 in Nature the localization of dystrophin to the muscle fiber surface and to demonstrate dystrophin deficiency in patients with Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD). In gene therapy experiments, he successfully used adenovirus to replace the dystrophin gene in mice models of DMD, and in 1990, conducted the first study of myoblast transfer in nine boys with DMD; the results were reported in 1993 in the Annals of Neurology. From 2001 to 2006, he directed an international consortium dedicated to molecular therapies of nervous system diseases.


His colleagues at the McGill Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI) remembered him as an innovative investigator and compassionate clinician.

In an e-mail message to Neurology Today, Michael Sinnreich, PhD, assistant professor and Killam Scholar in the Neuromuscular Research Group at MNI, recalled that when Dr. Karpati recruited him to the MNI, he was immediately taken in as a member of the extended Karpati family. “George invited me to all the family dinners and weekends at his family cottage,” he said.


DR. GEORGE KARPATI (1934–2009)

“I had lunch with George at the hospital cafeteria almost every day for the last five years,” Dr. Sinnreich continued. “He would call me at noon: ‘Any lunch plans, Michael?’ he would ask, knowing well that he was the plan. We talked about every subject, and he had strong opinions. His opinions were strong because he cared — about his patients, his family, and his friends. He cared about life. With him, I have lost a teacher and a dear friend.”

David R. Colman, Wilder Graves Penfield Professor and director of the MNI and Hospital, noted the serendipitous circumstances that marked Dr. Karpati's formative years and emigration to North America.

A Hungarian-Jew, Dr. Karpati narrowly escaped death as a child during the Holocaust of World War II.

Dr. Colman described those travails in an entry on the MNI Web site: “At the age of 8, George found himself [and his family] in a cattle car traveling across Hungary on the way to a Nazi death camp,” he wrote. “However, a sleepy railway switch operator accidentally deflected George's train to a forced labor camp [in Vienna], while sending a different trainload of families to their extermination.”

Dr. Karpati's father was later killed when he was taken from the labor camp to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in northwestern Germany.

After the war, Dr. Karpati returned to Hungary to finish his education. In 1956, he fled Hungary after the Communists invaded — and once again serendipity played a role, Dr. Colman said. Dr. Karpati escaped through a weak border crossing, where a disinterested officer diverted him to Canada. Once in Canada, he was chosen by lottery to enroll in Dalhousie University School of Medicine, where he received his medical degree in 1960. He conducted his post-graduate training at the MNI and at the NIH, before joining the faculty at the MNI in 1967.

Dr. Karpati is survived by his wife, Shira, and sons, Adam and Joshua. Donations in his honor can be sent to the Montreal Neurological Institute (George Karpati Memorial Fund) at the following address: Neuro Development Office, Montreal Neurological Institute, 3801 University St., Montreal, Quebec, Canada, H3A 2B4.