In memoriam, Dr. Louis I. Woolf, Professor Emeritus

Source: John Adams, Co-Founder, President & CEO, CanPKU & Allied Disorders Inc.
Published on CanPKU Facebook Page on February 13, 2021.

You may not known much about Louis Woolf, or even have heard of him, but if you are living with PKU, please take time to honour his memory, life and work.

It was his idea for a medical formula without phenylalanine that changed the world, transforming PKU from untreatable to treatable. This also transformed genetics making PKU the first genetic disorder with a treatment. Then he went on to advocate universal newborn screening and not just for PKU.

He passed away last Sunday and would have turned 102 years of age in April. It was a privilege and honour to know this gentle giant. CanPKU was able to present him with our highest award, Hero of PKU.

Here is an obituary published by the University of British Columbia:

In memoriam, Dr. Louis I. Woolf, Professor Emeritus

We have learned from the family of Dr. Louis I. Woolf, Professor Emeritus in the UBC Department of Psychiatry, that sadly, he passed away on Sunday January 7, 2021 at the age of 101.

Dr. Woolf first joined UBC in 1968 as a part of a research group in neurochemistry and neurophysiology in the Division of Neurological Sciences, then moved to the Department of Psychiatry in 1973 where he remained until his retirement in 1984. Leading a research program investigating inborn errors of metabolism, Dr. Woolf was at the forefront of and played an intrinsic role in the development and adoption of neonatal screening, opening a new path in public health and preventive medicine.

Long after his retirement in 2019, he and John Adams of CanPKU published a paper on the early history of PKU screening (https://www.mdpi.com/2409-515X/6/3/59). The editor of that journal exclaimed that Dr. Woolf must have achieved some kind of record having published an original paper in a scientific journal at the age of 100.

Prior to his arrival at UBC, Dr. Woolf taught at Brighton Polytechnic, then held a research post at Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital, where he developed the diet that treats phenylketonuria (PKU). In 1958, Dr. Woolf moved to the MRC Population Genetics Unit at Oxford, and then to the Department of the Regius Professor of Medicine, also at Oxford. It was there that he and others first introduced and developed the screening program that detected PKU in newborns, enabling early treatment. This has since been expanded to screen for several other inborn errors of metabolism, and is in use today for newborns in most countries.

Louis Isaac Woolf was born in London, England in April 1919, the third child of six. He went to Grocers’ School in Hackney, London (Now Hackney Downs Grammar School), and then to University College London, where he studied Chemistry. During WWII, UCL was evacuated to Aberystwyth in Wales, and it was there that he finished his degree as well as his Ph.D. In 1943 he married Frances Richards, whom he met at Aberystwyth, and in 1944 their only child, Lesley, was born. He is survived by Lesley and by her two sons, Benjamin and Oliver, and his two great-grandchildren, Graham and Willow.


Cover picture: Dr. Louis Woolf in his office in Vancouver 1972 (from University of British Columbia Archives, Photographer Unknown [UBC 41.1/2188]).

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