Mladen Vranic, a Canadian scientist of Croatian background with Czechoslovak connections (Mladen Vranic, chorvatský vědec v československém kontextu)

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Mladen VranicAuthor: Josef Cermak (CzechFolks.com PLUS)

This remarkable story really began in 1921, when guided by J. J. R. MacLeod, Frederick G. Banting and Charles H. Best isolated from the pancreas the hormone later called insulin and discovered its use in treatment of diabetes. Collip, a visiting Canadian professor, purified insulin so that it could be given to diabetic patients. For this discovery Banting shared with MacLeod the 1923 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine. Banting died in 1941 in a plane crash while on route to England on a medical war mission. That year Best, who at that time served as associate director of the Connaught Laboratories (where a few years later – and this constitutes the first, very indirect connection suggested in the title of this article – Mikuska Perinova worked as a technician on the development of the Salk polio vaccine) was appointed director of the Banting and Best Department of Medical Research at the University of Toronto. There was depression in various members of the family and his omission in awarding the Nobel Prize may have later contributed to his severe depressions.

Twelve days before Mladen’s eleventh birthday (1941) the Croatian fascists (Ustase) entered the Croatia with the help of German Nazis. Mladen’s racial background could eventually condemn him to death without trial. Later, he realized that this fate would be similar to the novel, “The Trial” by the great Czech writer, Franz Kafka. Mladen was, however, “lucky” to have escaped with his family and spent some time in Italian concentration camps and finally was safe in the Italian city Taranto, which was under occupation of the Allied forces.

Mladen was born in Zagreb, Croatia, received his M.D. in 1955 and seven years later his D. Sc. degree (equivalent of Ph.D) from the University of Zagreb. For one year, he was a medical soldier in the communist Yugoslav army. He loved to read the famous Czech novel, “Vojak Sveik”, which helped him adjust to the eternal absurdity of being a soldier. He was outdistanced by a few years in Czechoslovakia by Anna and Otakar Sirek, who graduated in medicine at the Slovak University in Bratislava in 1946. Anna (not yet named Sirek} and Otakar dueled for the top marks during their high school years and continued at the Medical School. Practically, every time they shared the honors. They also fell in love. In Czechoslovakia, the student who graduated with Summa Cum Laude, received from the President of the Republic a golden watch with an appropriate inscription. Anna and Otakar planned to marry because the Dean of the Law School advised them to get married before graduation: in Roman law husband and wife were deemed one person and if Anna and Otakar got married and both finished medicine with Summa Cum Laude, both would receive the presidential gift. After graduation they left to do some postgraduate work in Stockholm.
That was already in 1948, thus they decided not to return back to the Czechoslovakia. Otakar published a number of articles, some of them in English and one of them caught the eye of Professor Best in Toronto, who offered Otakar a job in the Best and Banting Institute. Otakar accepted and was joined there some years later by his wife who spent her first years in Toronto at the Sick Children Hospital. Both had a distinguished career, received many awards and were the only married couple included in the Toronto Star series Superstars of Science.

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Mladen started his own meteoric career in Zagreb. In the early sixties he attended a scientific diabetes conference in Geneva. That conference was also attended by Anna Sirek from Toronto. Mladen wished to come as a post-doctoral fellow to Toronto – a world centre in diabetes research. However, there was no position available. It took Anna a few months to persuade professor Best to invite Mladen to come to Toronto. During communism, Mladen could go to Toronto, but he couldn’t take his wife and his child, until the Prime Minister of Croatia, Savka Daplevic, who was a patron of Mladen’s mother’s beauty salon, intervened. In Toronto, he scaled the scientific Olympus in magnificent style: in 1965 appointed an Assistant Professor (and in 1972 Professor), Physiology, University of Toronto became member of the Institute of Medical Sciences, in 1977 member of Division of Endo. Metab. at the Toronto General Hospital; 1978 appointed Professor of Medicine, University of Toronto, and later became Chair of this famous department of Physiology; 1981 – 1993 chaired Commission on National and International Relations, Banting and Best Diabetic Centre; organized and chaired/co-chaired numerous national and international symposia including, in 1977, the first global conference on exercise and diabetes and in 1996 – to commemorate 75th Anniversary of Discovery of Insulin, he Chaired the joint University of Toronto/Karolinska/Joslin Centre – Harvard Symposium on Perspectives in Diabetes Research.

Canadian Medical Hall of Fame

Prof. Vranic is the author of 280 publications, editor/co-editor of 9 conference proceedings or books and impacted over 8000 citations. He is the recipient of so many awards and honors that they crowd two walls in Mladen’s office in the Medical Sciences Building in Toronto. You will find there his MD (Hon.) from Karolinska Institute Medical Faculty (1992) (one of two Canadians in 200 years of the institute); Mladen is the only Canadian to receive the most prestigious world diabetes awards; the Banting Medal for scientific achievements (1991); the Albert Renold Award for distinguished service in the training of diabetes research scientists (2005); from the American Diabetes Association, the Canadian Diabetes Association Inaugural Life-Time Achievement Award (2007); Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (Academy of Arts and Science), (Canadian Academy of Health Sciences), and he is a corresponding member of the Croatian Academy of Health Sciences. Recently, he has been appointed to the board of the Japanese Academy of Sportology. Mladen is also a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada. His most important recognitions in Canada are Laureate of the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame, and this year he obtained the Order of Ontario, which is the highest recognition for outstanding contribution and achievements in the Province. He also received the inaugural Mizuno award from Japan. Mladen is a Visiting Professor, University of Zagreb and Stockholm, and lectured worldwide, including the R. Kroc Lectureship series, University of Southern California.

And so we get to the last connection between Dr. Vranic’s career and Czechoslovakia: Raymond “Ray” Kroc, is an American businessman of Czech origin – his parents moved to USA from Stupno, a small village close to Plzen (Pilsen), where the family ran a small pub. Raymond Kroc built a small-scale McDonald’s Corporation, and later took it over in 1954. This corporation later became the most successful fast food operation in the world and Kroc was included in Time 100 Most Important people of the Century. Also was a great supporter of research into diabetes and arthritis, particularly during his first marriage (Mr. Kroc was married 3 times – his second wife was John Wayne’s secretary). One of the pictures in Dr. Vranic’s office shows a group of people in a country setting. They are diabetes scholars assembled at the Kroc ranch in California and one of them is Ray Kroc’s brother. Thus, Mladen organized the first exercise and diabetes symposium. At that time, exercise was not considered of primary importance with this disease. This meeting and subsequent meetings, provided the definitive proof that exercise with regulation of diet, can not only improve, but prevent the onset of diabetes. Paradoxically, he recently discovered that while continuous stress deteriorates diabetes, adaptation to repeated stresses can also prevent diabetes.

From his early days, Mladen was exposed to and loved Czech music such as, Dvorak, Smetana, and especially more recent Czech operas by Leos Janacek. And it was fantastic to listen in Toronto, to the Slavic music conducted by Karel Ancerl. Finally, the novels of Milan Kundera, were similar to his own thoughts about the relationship between the immigrants and their native country.
Yet, come to think of it, there was one more encounter between Dr. Vranic and things Czechoslovak: last year Toronto Czech television Nova vize screened a documentary film on Dr. Vranic’s life and work. And of course, one day he may deliver lectures at universities in Prague and in Bratislava.
 

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