Arnold Steinberg, former McGill chancellor, dead at 82

Businessman and philanthropist Arnold Steinberg - a grocer who helped end rickets in Quebec in the 60s by insisting milk sold by his chain be enriched with Vitamin D - died suddenly in Montreal on Friday at the age of 82.

Lifelong philanthropist, world-renowned art collector, Steinberg helped end rickets in Quebec

A former McGill University chancellor, philanthropist and art collector, Arnold Steinberg died suddenly in Montreal on Dec. 11, 2015. He was 82. (McGill University/William Lew)

Arnold Steinberg, a philanthropist with a keen interest in health and higher education, and a world-renowned art collector, died suddenly in Montreal Friday morning at the age of 82.

Steinberg was the first Jewish chancellor of McGill University, from 2009 until June, 2014 — a role that capped decades of service to the university from which he graduated with a commerce degree in 1954.

In an online letter announcing Steinberg's death Friday, university principal Suzanne Fortier said the former chancellor "believed in the transformative power of education."

"As he did throughout his life, he brought to the job (of chancellor) a boundless curiosity and focused intelligence. He was decisive when he needed to be, kind and humble always."

Battle for Vitamin D in milk

Steinberg was the nephew of Sam Steinberg, the founder of the grocery chain that bore the family name, joining the family business in 1958 and eventually becoming its chief financial officer. 

By the 1960s, Steinberg was serving on the board of the Montreal Children's Hospital Research Institute when he learned that tens of thousands of Quebec children were suffering from rickets, a disorder that causes children's bones to weaken, leaving them bow-legged. Some children were severely affected because, unlike the rest of Canada, Quebec regulations didn't require that milk be enriched by Vitamin D. 

No vitamin D in the milk marketed in Quebec, no contract to the milk distributors,- Dr. Charles Scriver, describing how Arnold Steinberg helped end rickets in Quebec

"Eventually, we got the Quebec government to change the regulation," said Dr. Charles Scriver, a geneticist and McGill University researcher whose groundbreaking work proved rickets was epidemic among Quebec children. "Things did not improve as anticipated."

It turned out the milk supplier for the major market of Montreal "did not believe in contaminating the glorious product of milk with an oily substance called vitamin D," said Scriver. "So nothing got done."

Enter Steinberg

Scriver said Steinberg asked for two weeks to solve the problem, sending out this message to Quebec's milk suppliers: "No Vitamin D in the milk marketed in Quebec, no contract."

"It was Mr. Steinberg who was able to make a suggestion to the distributors who were the source of the problem to change their practice and let us restore nutrition and health to our most vulnerable citizens — infants and children," Scriver said. 

"The epidemic of hypocalcemia and Vitamin D deficiency disappeared."

On 'Top 200' list of art collectors

Steinberg went on to chair the Montreal Children's Hospital Research Institute for 19 years and served on McGill University's Board of Governors for a decade.

In recent years, his interest turned to neuroscience, founding with his wife, McGill professor emeritus Blema Steinberg, the Steinberg Centre for Simulation and Interactive Learning in 2006.

"Every day, the academic and scientific exposure expands my whole world of knowledge," Steinberg told the McGill Reporter in his final days as university chancellor in 2014. "It's an endless stream of excitement, of new intelligence, of new information."

Steinberg and his wife were avid collectors of modern and contemporary art, named by Art News to the list of the top 200 art collectors worldwide.

He was made a member of the Order of Canada in 1993 and became an officer of the Order of Quebec in 2013.

He is survived by his wife Blema and their three children, Margot, Donna and Adam. His funeral will be held Monday in Montreal.


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