Tributes pour in for pain research pioneer

"Dr. Ron Melzack has done for pain research and pain management what Einstein did for physics." — Canadian Medical Hall of Fame

Aaron Derfel, Montreal Gazette 3 minute read January 7, 2020

Ronald Melzack, pictured in 2009, has died at age 90. MARCO CAMPANOZZI / Montreal Gazette

“No one should have to feel pain.”

— Dr. Ronald Melzack.

To the residents of Banstead Rd. in Montreal West, Ronald Melzack was the kindly, unassuming neighbour who would delight in teaching children the wonders of astronomy at night.

In the world of medicine and psychology, though, Melzack was considered a giant in the field of pain research, co-founding Canada’s first pain clinic at the Montreal General Hospital and making discoveries that are still being cited to this day.

On Dec. 22, Melzack died at the age of 90, and tributes to the man and his achievements have been pouring in from all over the world.

“I think a case can be made that Ron Melzack had the greatest career of any person to ever be in the field of pain (research),” Jeffrey Mogil, a behavioural neuroscientist at McGill University, said on Monday.

“Furthermore, an argument can be made that it wasn’t even a field until he and Pat Wall published their gate-control theory” about pain in 1965.

Melzack and Wall theorized that nerve impulses from an injured area of the body travel to the spinal cord and to what they called a gate. Simply put, if someone is busy thinking about something else, he or she might not feel the pain since the gate is closed. But if the same person is anxious and worried about something, the gate is wide open and the pain is experienced even more sharply.

Melzack went on to devise the groundbreaking McGill Pain Questionnaire in 1975. The questionnaire has since been translated into 50 languages and is still the mostly widely used method for measuring pain in clinical research worldwide. More than a decade later, Melzack published his influential “neuromatrix theory of pain” in 1989, helping to explain the phenomenon of phantom limb pain in amputees.

“It’s been said that Dr. Ron Melzack has done for pain research and pain management what Einstein did for physics,” the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame declared upon his induction in 2009.

Melzack was not a medical doctor but a psychologist who served as research director of the pain clinic from 1974 until his retirement in 2000. The clinic later became known as the Alan Edwards Pain Management Unit of the McGill University Health Centre, still based at the General.

“If I can make a baseball analogy, normally when you publish a paper you hit a single,” added Mogil, who holds the Canada Research Chair in the genetics of pain. “Every so often, maybe once in your career, you’ll get lucky and you’ll hit a home run for a study that really gets a lot of interest and citations. Ron Melzack had two and possibly three home runs.”

Dr. Abraham Fuks, the former dean of medicine at McGill, recounted studying under Melzack in the university’s psychology department in the mid-1960s.

“He wasn’t arrogant or supercilious,” Fuks told the Montreal Gazette. “On the contrary, where the teachers were kind of conservative and grim-looking, Melzack was the opposite. He was this sunshine in front of the classroom. He taught with passion, with enthusiasm. He made you get excited and love the subject. I mean, that is the epitome of teaching, right?”

Steven Pinker, the renowned psychologist and linguist at Harvard University, recalled babysitting Melzack’s children when he lived in Montreal. In fact, Pinker was a neighbour of Melzack’s on Banstead.

“Ron was a great scientist — a pioneer in our understanding of pain — a great humanitarian, dedicated to the relief of human suffering, and an unpretentious, generous mensch,” Pinker wrote on the Melzack’s condolences page on the Paperman & Sons website.

Melzack’s funeral was held on Dec. 26. He is survived by his wife of 59 years, Lucy, and and their two children, Lauren and Joel.