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Halina Robinson had a long­standing interest in the arts. Here, she chisels a piece of soapstone in a night school class.

A woman ahead of her time

The remarkable journey of Halina Robinson

In 2023 Western Libraries received the largest gift in its history—a $2-million bequest from Halina and James Russell (Rus) Robinson, building on a fund the couple started in 1979. But the story really began in 1944.

As the train pulled into the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in 1944, 17-year-old Halina Czajkowska felt an enormous sensation of stillness, resigned to accept her fate. She and her mother had arrived there, vulnerable to persecution because of her father’s position in the Polish army. By this point, Halina had seen her home bombed and witnessed horrific atrocities before she and her mother were arrested during the failed Warsaw Uprising against German occupation. 

Despite grave illnesses brought on by deplorable conditions at Auschwitz and later at Bergen-Belsen, the pair miraculously survived, overjoyed to finally reunite with Halina’s father in 1948. In her 2020 memoir, Heaven, Hell and Purgatory, Halina wrote of the many strangers who ensured her survival. There was the defiant “little old babuszka (granny),” who dressed down a soldier with ill intent, saving Halina from rape or a terrible death. And a compassionate Belgian doctor whom Halina later credited for inspiring the “hard work to make something of myself as repayment to him for his kindness and effort.” She did so with abundance over the next seven decades.

From artist to medical innovator

An artist as a child, the war forced Halina to push her creative passions aside, as did economic realities once it ended. Freed from Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945 and sent to Sweden with her mother, Halina declined an art scholarship, instead choosing chemical engineering, which she felt was more likely to lead to a viable career.

After graduating with high marks in 1950 from the Stockholms Tekniska Institut, Halina joined the famed Karolinska Institutet to work in the lab of pioneering cancer researchers Drs. George and Eva Klein. There she mastered white blood cell counting techniques used to assess chemotherapy drugs.

When the Korean War broke out, Halina, weary from past horrors, emigrated to Canada. She was intent on resuming her engineering career, but in 1951, London, Ont., like most of North America, was not yet accepting female engineers. (Adding insult to injury, having sponsored her parents to come to Canada, Halina tried to buy them a house, only to learn that as a woman she’d need the mortgage co-signed by a man.)

Halina eventually landed a role as a laboratory technologist in the lab of former Western Faculty of Medicine dean James Bertram (J.B.) Collip, who, along with Frederick Banting, Charles Best and John Macleod, co-discovered and purified insulin at the University of Toronto. She worked under the supervision of Robert Noble, who was exploring leaves from the vinca plant (better known as periwinkle) as an oral source of insulin. He asked Halina to measure glucose levels in the blood of rats who received oral extracts from the plant.

What happened next caught the attention of Dr. Jacalyn Duffin, 40 years later. “Halina was petrified of losing all the skills she had developed in Sweden. So, instead of just measuring the blood sugar, she measured absolutely everything else, including red cells, white cells and platelets,” says Duffin, editor of Halina’s memoir, and Hannah Professor Emerita in the History of Medicine at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. When the experiment moved to injections in 1952, the rats died, but their sugars didn’t budge. Halina observed a decline in white blood cell counts. Recognizing the significance this could have in treating childhood leukemia, she repeated her tests, confirming her results by 1953.

Halina’s observation led Noble to reconsider the vinca leaves for cancer treatment. Joined by chemist Charles Beer, who devised a method to isolate and purify an active compound in the plant, the team announced the groundbreaking discovery of the anti-cancer drug Vinblastine in 1958. Vinblastine was the first major Canadian breakthrough in cancer chemotherapy, with Beer and Noble (posthumously) inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame in 1997.

Halina received little acknowledgment for her contributions until Duffin outlined them in a research paper years later. “She confessed to doing something that she hadn’t been asked to do and that took courage,” says Duffin. “These drugs are still used today for treating leukemia and lymphoma and other cancers.”

Photo of Halina and Rus Robinson, 1968

Halina and Rus Robinson at a Chemical Institute of Canada (CIC) ball patrons’ party, when Halina served as chair of the London section of the CIC. Windsor Star

A love story is born

It wasn’t all work for Halina at Western. She also found love.

After being severely injured in the Second World War, Flight Lieutenant James Russell (Rus) Robinson came home to Canada and enrolled at Western as a post-graduate chemistry student. Halina caught Rus’s eye one day in a cafeteria. He eventually asked her out. Romance blossomed and on Aug. 1, 1953, shortly after Rus became Western’s first PhD graduate in chemistry, he and Halina married. Rus stayed on at Western, teaching, and working for Agriculture Canada until 1985, at its site on campus.

In 1956, Halina became “chemist-in-charge” of the paediatric research lab at Victoria Hospital (now part of London Health Sciences Centre). She continued to make important contributions, developing micro-chemical and analytical methods suitable for treating newborn patients.

Art leads to powerful legacy

In 1976, Halina retired and rediscovered her passion for fine arts. She enjoyed painting, wood carving and volunteering at Museum London. She took art courses and taught watercolour techniques at Western and exhibited in a number of regional shows.

Halina told The Ingersoll Times in 1983 that with all the suffering in the world, she wanted her art to “bring a smile to a person’s face.”

“I want my work to outlive me. I want it to be around when I am gone.”

True to her nature, Halina made good on that plan. Upon her death in 2021 at 94, she left behind an unexpected treasure trove of more than 700 of her original works, some of which were displayed in an exhibit at London’s Satellite Project Space in August 2023.

Rus had been a donor to Western Libraries for years before his death in 2010 with Halina continuing this support. The Robinsons’ $2-million bequest to Western Libraries will fund materials in history and social science, offering undergraduate and graduate students unparalleled access to the most important literature in military history—a subject of great interest to Rus.

Collections and content strategies librarian Elizabeth Mantz is overwhelmed by the generosity of Halina and Rus, whom she grew to know over the years as a gentle and un-assuming couple. “This wonderful gift continues their legacy of doing remarkable things for people they’ve never met. It speaks to the lives they lived and a power they had within.”

And then there is the remarkable Halina herself—remembered by Mary Thuss for her determination to move forward.

“Halina was a woman ahead of her time,” says Thuss, BHSc’05, MScN’14, the daughter of one of Halina’s long-time friends. “She knew what she wanted when she wanted it and how she wanted it to be. She fought all the time for her status, which was likely born from being in the concentration camps, fighting her way to get wherever she needed to be.”