Jacob Canick, 68; advanced research in prenatal screening

Dr. Canick, praised for his humor and modesty, had taught at medical schools around the world.
Dr. Canick, praised for his humor and modesty, had taught at medical schools around the world.

Equally at home as a researcher and teacher, Jacob Canick was a scientist in the division of medical screening and special testing at Women & Infants Hospital of Rhode Island in Providence and was internationally known over the past quarter-century for his contributions in the field of prenatal screening.

He also was a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at Alpert Medical School at Brown University, and had taught at Harvard University, Boston University, and medical schools around the world.

“He was a very good teacher,” said his friend and colleague Sir Nicholas J. Wald, head of environmental and preventive medicine at the Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine in London. “He was able to simplify issues and explain the relevant points. Students really liked him. He was charming.”


Dr. Canick had traveled to England to teach a course on prenatal screening when he died May 19 of cardiac arrest caused by dysrhythmia soon after collecting his baggage at Heathrow Airport in London. He was 68 and lived in Newton.

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“It’s a shock and a tragedy, a very great loss,” Wald said. “He was such an active individual who would have continued contributing so much to medical knowledge.”

Dr. Canick’s research “very much advanced the knowledge, and improved the efficacy, of prenatal screening,” Wald said.

He praised his friend’s “sound scientific judgment” and said Dr. Canick was “a particularly good listener, dependable in what he did and what he’d say he would do.”

As a researcher, Dr. Canick identified levels of estriol as a possible indicator of Down syndrome, which helped pave the way for prenatal testing for other birth defects. “He was good at reviewing situations, marshaling the existing evidence and adding elements to it,” said Wald, who began collaborating with Dr. Canick after the estriol discovery. “He was a good team player; he’s going to be very hard to replace.”


Colleagues, friends, and family also praised Dr. Canick’s sense of humor, and his spirit for adventure, generosity, and modesty.

Dr. W. Dwayne Lawrence, Dr. Canick’s colleague at the Women & Infants Hospital of Rhode Island, described him in a statement as a “beloved and compassionate member of the Women & Infants family” and a “brilliant scientist who touched the lives of untold numbers of patients.”

Jacob A. Canick, who was known to all as Jack, was born in New York City in 1944 and grew up in the Bronx and Brooklyn, the son of Russian immigrants who owned a floor-covering shop. He graduated from Horace Mann School, where he received a citywide math award, said his sister, Pearl Solomon of New York City.

“None of us knew how smart he was until we went to his high school graduation and they called his name,” she said of the brother who was younger than she by 10 years. “He was always so sweet and quiet and modest.”

Dr. Canick graduated in 1966 from Brandeis University with a bachelor’s degree in biology and developed a loyalty to Boston that lasted throughout his life, said his wife, Marsha.


He commuted every day from the couple’s Newton home to Providence, she said, but didn’t mind the drive, which he usually spent listening to classical music.

He was a ‘brilliant scientist who touched the lives of untold numbers of patients.’

When Dr. Canick test-drove a new car, she said, he always brought along one of his CDs so he could try out the sound system.

“That was the main thing he cared about,” she said. “He loved classical music. He said it helped him decompress.”

Dr. Canick received a doctorate in biochemistry from the University of Rhode Island in 1972 and did post-doctoral work at Harvard Medical School in the departments of pediatrics and reproductive biology from 1972 to 1975.

Along with lecturing around the world, Dr. Canick wrote or cowrote more than 200 studies and articles, served on a wide range of hospital committees, and won numerous awards.

He met Marsha Rogers when their sons, who are three months apart in age, became friends at a Cambridge preschool. Both of their first marriages ended in divorce.

They started dating two years later, when the boys were 5, and married in the backyard of their Newton home in 1980.

“Jack was my stepfather, at least in title,” their son Alex Rogers of Ann Arbor, Mich., said in a eulogy at a memorial service last month. “In reality he was my second father. He helped with homework, tied ice skates, usually at 7 a.m. on a Saturday . . . he did the million little things it takes to be a good father.”

Alex Rogers said he and Dr. Canick’s son, Simon of St. Paul, introduced Dr. Canick and Marsha. “Those preschool play dates turned into a wonderful family and 33 years of marriage,” Rogers said.

In his eulogy, Simon told his stepmother that his father was “lucky to find you,” and added, “So was I.”

Simon described his father as “an oasis.”

“He was easy to talk to, welcoming, a sweet and gentle person, smart and unpretentious.”

Simon and his stepbrother both recalled Dr. Canick’s habit of ordering excessively when the family dined in restaurants so no one would have to make difficult decisions.

“We ate Chinese all the time,” Simon said. “And I can hear my Dad saying, ‘I think we should get about 10 dishes’ — and there are only five people at the table, and two of them are toddlers — ‘We can always save the leftovers.’ ”

Besides classical music and good food, Dr. Canick enjoyed hiking and biking, especially while traveling, his wife said. In recent years, the couple vacationed in “out-of-the-way places,” she added, including the Pyrenees in Europe, Patagonia in South America, and Nepal.

A service has been held for Dr. Canick, who in addition to his wife, sons, and sister leaves four grandchildren.

Wald said that although Dr. Canick was “internationally distinguished, well known not only in North America, but in Europe, China, Australia,” he was “never influenced by extraneous issues.”

“Money or reward never came into it for Jack,” Wald said. “He was always concerned with getting things right. And he was a pleasure to work with.”

Kathleen McKenna
can be reached at