Pharmacologist defied barriers to pursue research
IRENA MAZURKIEWICZ-KWILECKI • 1919-2008
A survivor of the atrocities of the Second World War in Poland, Irena Mazurkiewicz-Kwilecki would become fluent in French, Spanish and English, immigrate to Canada and become a notable academic in Ottawa. She died on March 20 at age 89.
Ms. Mazurkiewicz-Kwilecki was born on May 14, 1919, in Poland. In September 1939, when she was 20, the German army invaded Poland. Her family fled from Krakow to Lwow in the eastern part of the country (now Lviv, Ukraine), which was then invaded by the Russian army. Poland was divided between the two armies until Germany broke the non-aggression pact in 1941 and occupied the eastern half of the country as well.
Ms. Mazurkiewicz-Kwilecki wrote of her experiences during the Second World War: being stripped naked and made to parade ashamed and humiliated past five German examiners in order to return to Krakow with her mother and sister; and discovering the extraordinary circumstances in which people conduct business — her mother selling her husband’s watch, the only memento she’d saved after his death, for an empty can to claim some of the soup the Red Cross was offering to feed her and her sister, Sophia, who hadn’t eaten in two days.
Eventually finding herself in Warsaw, Ms. Mazurkiewicz-Kwilecki joined the 1944 Warsaw uprisings among the Polish people that reclaimed their country from the Nazis, only to be overtaken by the Russians soon after.
“She was a strong woman and she never gave up. She was an excellent representative of the Polish intelligentsia,” said Alexander Jablonski, president of the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences in Canada.
After the war, Ms. MazurkiewiczKwilecki returned to school and earned her master’s degree in pharmacology from the Jagellonian University in Krakow. She escaped communist Poland as a political refugee in 1948, reuniting with family in France and Ecuador, where she made cakes for embassies, before being granted an immigration visa two years later.
When she arrived in Montreal, her degree was unrecognized. Ambitious and determined, she enrolled at McGill University to redo her master’s degree and pursue her PhD in pharmacology, said her son-in-law, Roman Konopka. After she graduated, she worked for the pharmacology branch of Health and Welfare Canada in Ottawa, before joining the faculty at the University of Ottawa in 1960.
Ms. Mazurkiewicz-Kwilecki specialized in the study of histamine, specifically, the impact of elevated histamine levels on the brain and how they relate to aging and Alzheimer’s disease. She published many papers in academic journals throughout the 1980s.
“She loved her work,” Mr. Konopka said. “There were many years when she didn’t take holidays because she wanted to work on her research.”
Little did she know, she would one day suffer the very disease that was at the heart of her work.
While in Montreal, she met her husband, Lech Kwilecki, a Polish veteran of the Second World War. They moved to Ottawa with their only daughter, Magdalena, who died in 2005. They were among the early members of the St. Hyacinth Roman Catholic Church.
After retiring in 1987, she was lost without her work, Mr. Konopka said. Her family convinced her to sign up for a memoir-writing class offered at a community centre in Ottawa to give her something to fill her time.
The class gathered once a week for eight weeks under the guidance of Ruth Latta, who later published pieces of these memoirs in her book
The Memory of All That. Part of Ms. Mazurkiewicz-Kwilecki’s story was included.
In 1992, Mr. Kwilecki lost his battle with colon cancer. “Her husband passed away while she was attending the classes. Though she was grieving over him, she summoned up the strength to come back to class, and we all admired her for her courage and determination to go on,” Ms. Latta said.
Three years ago, Ms. MazurkiewiczKwilecki moved into the Peter D. Clark Long-Term Care Centre in Nepean, which specializes in the care of Alzheimer’s patients.