David Suzuki, a great Canadian, is a geneticist, broadcaster, author, teacher and environmentalist with a strong social conscience.
Suzuki, a third-generation Japanese-Canadian, was born in 1936 in Vancouver. His family ran a dry cleaning shop, but on fishing and camping trips, his father pointed out the natural wonders that surrounded them - birds, trees, plants, and animals - awakening an interest in the natural world that would remain with Suzuki all his life. These happy early memories were quickly replaced when the family, along with all of Canada's west coast Japanese population, were subject to internment during the Second World War, as enemy aliens. In filmed biographies, Suzuki speaks of the scars of this time, shunned as an outsider in his own country and left with a permanent need to excel, to prove his worth, which he has done to heights most of us could only dream of. Only six when the family was uprooted, Suzuki lived with other Japanese Canadians in squalid camps; even here, amongst his ostensible kin, he didn't fit in because he didn't speak Japanese. After four years these people were not offered their property or businesses back, instead being given the choice to move to Japan or to another part of Canada. Suzuki's family chose the second option, settling far away from British Columbia, in Leamington, a town near London, Ontario. Here Suzuki completed high school, and turned his bedroom into a naturalist's paradise filled with fossils, insects, dead animals, and other bits of nature.
Intending to study medicine, Suzuki garnered a scholarship to attend Amherst College, but he quickly became captivated by genetics; he graduated with an honours BA in biology in 1958. He then went on to earn a PhD in Zoology from the University of Chicago in 1961, studying chromosomal crossover in the fruit fly.
Suzuki turned down lucrative job offers from the United States, returning to Canada and getting a job at the University of British Columbia, where he continued his work on mutations in fruit flies and won numerous prestigious awards. He bred a strain of fruit fly that died when the temperature exceeded 29°C, a breakthrough in biological pest control, as his strain would mate with ordinary fruit flies to produce a generation that would die during a hot spell. This drew international attention, and Suzuki's fame grew. He was - and by accounts still is - a hard worker who would sleep in his lab in a hammock, an extraordinary degree of dedication that cost him his first marriage, which ended in 1965. Around this time he became increasingly concerned about the potential negative impact of science and technology on society and the environment, and by the mid 70s had abandoned much of his scientific research.
He didn't remain idle, though. Between 1974 and 1979 he was the host of a CBC radio show, "Quirks and Quarks" and a TV show, "Science Magazine". By 1979 this show was merged with the longstanding and popular "The Nature of Things", a move which has made Suzuki a global star. Other media ventures include an eight part series, "A Planet for the Taking", which won an award from the United Nations; an eight part series "The Secret of Life" (for PBS); a five part series "The Brain" (for the Discovery Channel); and two documentary radio series "From Naked Ape to Superspecies" and "It's a Matter of Survival". He has written more than 30 books - which range from textbooks to children's fancies - and countless scholarly and popular articles.
Part of Suzuki's appeal is that he makes science compelling yet understandable; he has been described as "one of the world’s most effective popularizers of science, alongside Carl Sagan and Jacques Cousteau". He merges science and entertainment in a way that informs but does not condescend. And he cares, quite passionately, about life and the earth.
In the mid 80s Suzuki began to take a more confrontational environmentalist stance and spoke out publicly and strongly about the need for people to take a strong advocacy position to protect the earth's diversity. In 1990 he and his second wife, Dr. Tara Cullis, founded the David Suzuki Foundation, dedicated to developing “a world vision of sustainable communities living within the planet’s carrying capacity”. In 1992, Suzuki and his daughter Severn - then age 12 - both spoke at the Earth Summit Conference in Rio de Janeiro. Besides Severn, he has one other child with Cullis and three from his previous marriage.
Suzuki is a much honoured man. He has been awarded a UNESCO prize for science, a United Nations Environment Program medal, and the Order of Canada. He has 15 honorary doctorates from universities in Canada, the US and Australia. For his work in support of First Nations people, he has received tributes and been honoured with formal adoption by two tribes. You can read a dizzying list of his accomplishments, and find out more about the Foundation, at www.davidsuzuki.org.