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By LAURENCE WALL
The Nazi officials must have been puzzled by the young Canadian captain interrogating them. The captain wore a British Army uniform, yet spoke flawless German.


It was 1945, the war had just ended and Captain Leon Katz was ordered to question these Nazis, speaking the German he had learned from his parents while growing up in Montreal. Now he was 5,600 kilometres from home, trying to find out more about the people who worked for that murderous regime.
But interrogations were only part of Captain Katz’s duties while attached to the British Army in Dusseldorf. He also recruited, trained and supervised more than 30 anti-Nazi Germans who, in turn,m scrutinized Third Reich records and documents.
Captain Katz also did some “unofficial” work while in Germany. Over a period of months, he arranged for military trucks to transport thousands of Jewish refugees, many of them orphaned children and nearly all of them Holocaust survivors, onto ships bound for the British protectorate of Palestine, later Israel.
Mr. Katz had been shipped overseas with the Canadian Army in 1944 at the age of 19 and saw the horrors of war. Once back in Canada, he vowed to dedicate the rest of his time on Earth to saving lives.
By the time of his death on Jan. 9 in Ottawa at the age of 90, the Order of Canada recipient had designed and built an astonishing number of vital medical devices, many of which are still widely used to this day. This led to his later work with the federal Medical Devices Bureau, where he established standards that ensured the safety and effectiveness of such devices used in Canada.
Leon Katz was born into extreme poverty in Montreal on Dec. 20, 1924, the second of four children. His parents, Regina and Harry Katz, were Romanian immigrants. His father worked as a tailor, earning a few dollars a month in an unheated factory.
Mr. Katz remembered his mother working at her Singer sewing machine at home to earn a few cents to buy the children bread or a small jar of milk. She sometimes had to feed her entire family with just a can of sardines.
Despite the difficult circumstances, Regina and Harry Katz still managed to give their children an appreciation for education and music. While listening to his mother’s small table radio, young Leon developed an affection for opera and symphonies that lasted throughout his life.
Growing up on Montreal’s Duluth Street, he faced regular, almost daily beatings from anti-Semitic bullies. Those beatings left him with permanent scars on his face. But he still managed to graduate from Commercial High School with the silver medal for the highest average by a high school student in Quebec.
When he returned from the war, he studied electrical engineering at McGill University. After graduating in 1950, he joined the Montreal Neurological Institute as a biomedical engineer. This is where he first showed his remarkable versatility and his gift for devising medical equipment.
Once, while working in a hospital radiology department in Montreal, he was unable to find a suitable part to complete a device known as a whole bolus injector. So he improvised in a very Canadian way, using pistons from a snow loader which the hospital’s snow-clearing crew had reluctantly “donated.”
The jerry-rigged device worked perfectly.
Working with the renowned neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield in the early 1950s, Mr. Katz devised instruments that allowed the surgeon to treat brain diseases. Dr. Penfield would later use those devices to make landmark discoveries about the human brain.
In 1953, Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital hired him to look at medical applications for the radioactive isotope of iodine, known as I131. Mr. Katz travelled to Atomic Energy of Canada’s Chalk River Reactor near Deep River, 180 km northwest of Ottawa, and obtained some I131.
Back at the hospital, he soon discovered that the isotope was effective in diagnosing and treating patients with thyroid disease.
Over the years, Mr. Katz designed and built numerous medical devices, including one of the country’s first fetal heart monitors. He was also instrumental in devising innovative infant incubators as well as a high-speed contrast injector used in a medical imaging technique called angiography.
Among his most notable achievements was creating one of the first heart-lung pumps for open-heart surgery. Mr. Katz had worked on the pump over many months, trying to overcome a serious problem: His early prototypes invariably crushed the red blood cells, his daughter, Floralove, said.
“One day, he and Mum were walking through a farmer’s market,” Floralove said. “They observed one farmer making strawberry jam using a pump that didn’t crush the strawberries as they moved through the system. Dad’s brain, ever working overtime, contemplated how to adapt and modify that very strawberry jam pump … to push blood through the system without crushing the red blood cells.”
He incorporated this mechanism and his modified heart-lung pump finally worked.
On July 3, 1957, doctors at the Montreal Heart Institute conducted one of Canada’s first successful open-heart operations, which saved the life of an 11-year-old boy named Pierre Whissel. Throughout the procedure, Mr. Katz sat calmly at the controls of his heart-lung pump, keeping the boy alive during the delicate operation. He was usually the only one who understood how his devices operated so Mr. Katz would often run his own equipment in the operating room.
“He was brave enough and courageous enough and confident enough to develop these devices in a hospital setting,” says Timothy Zakutney, director of biomedical engineering at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute and a friend and admirer of Mr. Katz.
“There was no choice; you’d have patients who would die if he didn’t do something.”
In 1965, Mr. Katz started a company to manufacture medical devices called Medco Instruments. Even after selling it to a U.S. medical products firm, he stayed on as a consultant and continued to design and build devices including an infant apnea monitor, the Air Shields infant incubator, external cardiac pacemakers and a DC defibrillator.
In 1973, he went from designing and building equipment to regulating it when he became the first chief of the Diagnostic Devices Division and Evaluation and Standards Division in the Bureau of Medical Devices in Ottawa.
Soon after joining the bureau, Mr. Katz discovered a potentially deadly back flow from tubes used to gather blood samples that became contaminated with bacteria. Some patients had already died or become ill as a result.
His article in the British medical journal The Lancet prompted American and British authorities to follow Canada’s lead and issue recalls of the tainted tubes and later, to toughen up their legislation.
During his time at the bureau, Mr. Katz investigated and corrected more than 1,000 reported problems with devices, everything from cardiac pacemakers and pregnancy test kits to condoms and child-safe medicine bottles.
Biomedical engineer Fekri Osman worked with Mr. Katz at the bureau for several years.
“Leon Katz left a legacy of hard work, perseverance and a sense of humour,” Mr. Osman said.
“He found that humour deflates tension and creates good atmosphere around him. No matter what, he was always smiling.”
Mr. Katz met his future wife, Ruth Gottlieb, in 1949. Both were on their way to work on kibbutzim in the new State of Israel. They returned to Montreal and married the following year, a marriage that lasted 65 years. The couple eventually had four children: Michael, Geoffrey, Floralove and Shelley.
Floralove says when she and her brothers were small, their father would entertain them with original bedtime stories.
“He would tell us these amazingly complex story plots involving a little girl named Jennifer,” she recalled, “and her own strategies for dealing with two pesky boys upstairs, Berfie and Mergetroid.”
Occasionally, her father would end a storytelling session by doing a soft-shoe routine out the door of the bedroom while singing Merrily We Roll Along.
Mr. Katz was committed to the Jewish ideal of performing good deeds. Over a 20-year period, Mr. Katz organized and trained more than two dozen volunteers, including his wife and daughter, and raised $1.5-million dollars for the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario by setting up and collecting change from coin boxes. The hospital later awarded him the Order of the Good Bear for his efforts.
Later in life, more awards and recognition followed. In 2006, he received the Living Legend Award from the World Society of Cardio-Thoracic Surgeons, a rare honour for someone who wasn’t a surgeon.
In 2007, he was named an officer of the Order of Canada.
Mr. Katz was not afraid to challenge conventional wisdom, especially when it came to a fellow officer of the Order of Canada. In 2008, he was outraged to read that Conrad Black might be stripped of that honour because of his conviction on fraud charges.
Mr. Katz wrote a letter to The Ottawa Citizen that year in which he argued that depriving Mr. Black of his award would be “an outrageous attack on one of the brightest, most eloquent, and distinguished Canadians.
“His mastery of English, his challenging use of humour, and metaphor, and irony, his heroic defence of justice in Canada, all set him apart as a remarkable and exemplary member of our society.”
In his late 80s, Mr. Katz was still doing plumbing, drywall and other handiwork for tenants. He regularly attended performances by the National Arts Centre Orchestra and other musical groups.
Late last year, he appeared to weaken and became unwell. Doctors later discovered that he had lung cancer.
Despite that, Mr. Katz still saw visitors in his hospital room and would hold detailed discussions with former colleagues about past medical devices and current funding challenges. And he kept his sense of humour to the very end.
Days before his death, his wife, Ruth, and daughter Floralove, a professional singer, would sit by his bed and sing songs.
At one point, a nurse came by and asked Mr. Katz if he was in any pain.
He smiled at her and replied, “Only when my wife and daughter sing to me.”


This article first appeared in The Globe & Mail as an obituary and was sent to us by the author, Laurence Wall, who gave us permission to reprint it.