Phar­ma­col­o­gist de­fied bar­ri­ers to pur­sue re­search

IRENA MAZURKIEWI­CZ-KWILECKI • 1919-2008

Ottawa Citizen - - City - BY CAROLYN KUIPERS

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.

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