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Queen’s remembers Professor Emeritus Walter Szarek

Professor Emeritus Walter Szarek

The Queen’s community is remembering Professor Emeritus Walter A. Szarek, a long-time faculty member of the university in the Department of Chemistry who died on Feb. 6, 2021. He was 82.

Dr. Szarek grew up in St. Catharines and would graduate from McMaster University with an Honours B.Sc (1960), and Master’s (1962, with D. B. MacLean), before earning his PhD (1964, with J. K. N. Jones) at Queen’s. Following his studies, he worked as a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Chemistry at the Ohio State University (with M. L. Wolfram) and then as Assistant Professor of Biochemistry at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He returned to Queen’s University in 1967 and became a Full Professor in the Department of Chemistry in 1976.

“Dr. Szarek was an integral member of the Department of Chemistry and was one of Canada’s foremost carbohydrate and medicinal chemists,” says David Zechel, Acting Head and Graduate Studies Coordinator for the Department of Chemistry. “Despite his fame, Walter was a very humble and warm person, a peerless raconteur, and always willing to go the extra mile for his Department, colleagues, and students.”

Dr. Szarek was appointed Professor Emeritus in 2003 and continued to be very active in research for several years. His research lay at the interface of chemistry and medicine, with a particular focus on drug discovery and development. He is the author of over 350 peer-reviewed publications and held more than 30 patents in the areas of Alzheimer's disease, cancer, malaria, anti-bacterial agents, and therapeutic drugs for the treatment of chronic and acute pain.

His innovations led to successful drugs such as Kiacta, for treatment of renal amyloidosis; Alzhemed for treatment of Alzheimer’s, and the neutraceutical VIVIMIND, for alleviating memory decline. Each of these drug candidates were synthesized in the Szarek Laboratory at Queen’s. His research led to the establishment of Neurochem, which was renamed BELLUS Health Inc. in 2008.

“Walter was a brilliant researcher who used his extensive knowledge of carbohydrate chemistry to generate medicines for diseases that impact people’s lives," says Cathleen Crudden, a professor in the Department of Chemistry. "He was an incredibly supportive colleague, an outstanding mentor and an award-winning teacher. To me, he was also a friend and an inspiration. He will be sorely missed.”

On top of his research, Dr. Szarek was an excellent educator at both the undergraduate and graduate levels and received four teaching awards while at Queen’s. Among his many awards for research are the American Chemical Society’s Claude S. Hudson Award in Carbohydrate Chemistry and the Melville L. Wolfrom Award of the Division of Carbohydrate Chemistry of the American Chemical Society.

“Dr. Szarek was simply the finest example of a gentleman and a scholar,” says Jason Z. Vlahakis, Laboratory and Student Training Coordinator for the Department of Chemistry. “I had the great honor of knowing him and conducting scientific research with him for nearly three decades. Known by many as ‘The Godfather of Carbohydrate Chemistry’, Walter possessed a timeless dedication to science and teaching, and was the epitome of class. A fountain of knowledge and wisdom, his kind generosity and humorful storytelling will be greatly missed by all. Wishing we could write just one more publication together.”

In 2018, the first Walter A. Szarek Lecture was hosted by the department, featuring 2016 Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry, Sir Fraser Stoddart. It was Dr. Szarek who directed Sir Fraser’s research interests from carbohydrate chemistry to the then brand-new area of macrocycle synthesis and chemistry.

A private funeral service was held on Feb. 9 at St. Mary’s Cathedral, Kingston, before reaching his final resting place in St. Catharines.