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In Memoriam

DR. BRIGITTA ASKONAS

Dr Brigitta (Ita) Askonas FRS, died recently at the age of 89.  She was a student in the McGill Biochemistry Department in the 1940s. She completed her MSc here and was inspired and ecouraged by the Chair Professor David L Thomson to pursue her PhD  at Cambridge UK.  She went on to a spectacular career in immunology making many of the original discoveries of the functions of T cells in infection.  Her career was spent at the National Institute for Medical Research, Mill Hill, London, UK.  The NIMR has many links with McGill and Professors Bergeron, Mushynski, Shore and Thomas, fondly remember her, her intellect and her promotion of McGil University.
David Y. Thomas

Memories of Ita
In the fall of 1949 I arrived in Cambridge fresh from the cornfields of Iowa to begin my studies towards a Ph.D. in Microbiology. Shortly afterward I became acquainted with Ita as we both ate our evening meal at a hostel in Mill Lane. She shared her experiences as a newcomer to England as she too had come from North America to study. In her case from Canada, where she had received her M.Sc. from McGill University the previous year. She was a student of Malcolm Dixon in Biochemistry while I was a student of Ernest Gale in Microbiology, a part of the Biochemistry Department. So we also met at tea-time and at seminars.

The next year Ita, two other English girls and I moved into the ground floor flat of a magnificent old mansion in Mill Rd. Ita and I shared a large bedroom, which had originally been the dining room. During that year Ita shared knowledge and advice with me, including an alcohol band precipitation technique she developed for purifying enzymes. Even this early in her career she was careful and meticulous in her work, a wonderful model for me. After she completed her degree, she moved on to London and the MRC.

In the spring of 1952 I went to London to ‘defend’ my thesis. It was a daunting experience as the examiners were Hans Krebs and D.D. Woods, but she held my hand and all went well. To celebrate we made a brief tour of Wales and of Salisbury Cathedrals. Again she was the perfect companion as she was both architecturally knowledgeable and fun. Among our conversations she told of her work with lactating cows and I was intrigued by the manner in which the bovine circulatory system permitted one side of the udder to act as a control in her experiments. This was an example of the breadth of her research as milk proteins had nothing to do with her thesis work in enzymology.

That fall I returned to the U.S. where I eventually married and moved to Michigan. Throughout these later years we remained in contact through correspondence and several sabbatical visits my husband and I made to Europe.

Most of all Ita had style, in her lifestyle, manner and research. She was truly outstanding and those of us who benefited from her generosity and friendship will remember her forever. [April 1, 1923-January 9, 2013  Obituary, Science]
Dr. Lois Bigger Gehring

DR. MURRAY FRASER, born in Yarmouth, formerly educated at Dalhousie University in Halifax and Cambridge University in England, passed away peacefully on May 26, 2012 in Sydney, Australia where he had been retired for 20 years. He was a professor in Biochemistry for more than 25 years and devoted his life to science and research. He will be missed by family in Canada, Germany and Australia and friends from around the world. Our sympathies.

Dr. Murray Fraser was one of the pioneering researchers who recognized the importance of the DNA endo-exonucleases in cellular processes.  Nucleases play not only a degradative but also a vital role in maintaining the stability of the genome. Together with his colleague, Etta Kafer, and several dedicated graduate students, they exploited mainly genetic and biochemistry approaches, before molecular biology became fashionable, to delineate the role of the endo-exonuclease in Neurospora crassa.  While a Professor in the Department of Biochemistry at McGill University, his seminal work, led to the demonstration that endo-exonucleases play an important role in DNA repair in eukaryotes.  These findings have now been extended and have led to the discovery of an inhibitor of the endo-exonuclease that is currently being evaluated for the treatment of cancer. [2012 July 31]
Terry Chow
Dr. Fraser's Ph.D. student, 1981

RALPH STEINMAN was the first Canadian to win the Nobel Prize, in the category of Physiology or Medicine, since Banting and McLeod in 1923. Long-expected by colleagues, friends and family, Ralph, himself, wanted to live to hear if that announcement would ever come. Ironically, however, he would never know that he had received this honor, since he died, far too young, at the age of 68 on September 30, 2011, three days before the announcement was made.  In an unprecedented move, the Nobel Committee decided to stand by the decision, and made the award posthumously, since it had been given in good faith, and without the Committee’s knowledge of Ralph’s death.

Ralph Steinman was born in Montreal, but his family moved to Sherbrooke while he was still quite young, and Sherbrooke is where he grew up.  He returned to Montreal and McGill University where he received his BSc degree from the McGill Biochemistry Department, and then went on to Harvard Medical School for his MD. He completed his internship and residency training at the Massachusetts General Hospital and then went to Zanvil (Zan) Cohn’s Laboratory at Rockefeller University for post-doctoral training, and would remain there for the rest of his professional life.

Zan Cohn was the founder of modern day macrophage physiology, virtually rediscovering the function of Elie Metchnikoff’s phagocytic cell. Ralph began work on the macrophage in 1970, but some three years later, first saw the splenic cell that would occupy the remainder of his career. This was, of course, the dendritic cell (DC), the study of which would revolutionize the field of Immunology. 

Until the discovery of the DC, the field of Immunology was conceptualized as two separate entities. There was the inflammatory, Innate Immune Response on the one hand, and that of the Adaptive Immune Response, on the other.  This dichotomy left both entities floating about in rather incomplete fashions, and with a great many questions that remained to be answered as to if and how these two ‘immunities’ interacted. It was Ralph Steinman, leading his group of students, colleagues, and collaborators who defined the function of the DC as the cell that joined the Innate and Adaptive Immune Responses, thereby redefining the field of Immunology. 

Over some three and half decades, Ralph Steinman was able, first, to successfully isolate populations of DCs; a most difficult undertaking. He learned how to enrich these cells in vivo and in vitro, and how to grow them in culture, thus making studies of the DC a rational undertaking on an international scale. He defined the critical role of the DC as the professional antigen presenting cell by showing the series of steps that allowed the DC to digest organisms that had undergone phagocytosis. Then came the studies on how the various, digested foreign peptides were linked to molecules of the Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC) that were synthesized by the DC to form MHC-peptide complexes, which were then transported to the DC cell surface. This was the final step of the Innate Immune response. Subsequently, the DC’s presentation of the MHC-peptide complex to the T helper cell initiated the Adaptive Immune response. And so the field of Immunology was, at last, united. The role of the DC in antigen-specific tolerance, amongst yet other physiologic functions, would follow in later studies.

Ralph Steinman was the consummate Clinician-Scientist. An outstanding experimentalist he demanded excellence of himself, and of those who worked with him. But teaching and the demand for excellence were always accompanied by kindness, and a broad smile that seemed never to leave his face. He was a mentor to a huge cadre of Immunologists, many of whom would go on to outstanding careers in their own right, and in whom he always took great pride. In conversations with him, there seemed no doubt that his three priorities in life were family, education and research, in that order. And he was remarkably successful in all three areas. 

Always the clinician, Ralph saw the value of DCs in the field of vaccine therapy, both in infectious diseases and in cancer. Indeed, he and his colleagues learned how to expose DCs in culture to the cancer cells of patients, so that a dendritic cell vaccine could be created which would specifically attack the autologous cancer cells of the patient.  In yet another irony, Ralph’s final Clinical Trial was some four years of receiving a dendritic cell vaccine directed against his own pancreatic cancer. There is little doubt that his prolonged survival was largely due to the vaccine employed. 

Ralph Steinman was, in many ways, virtually all things to all people. Family man, physician, scientist, colleague, mentor, and friend. In all these roles, he will be greatly missed. [2012 Mar. 11]

Phil Gold CC, OQ, MD, PhD
Douglas G. Cameron Professor of Medicine,
Professor of Physiology and Oncology,
McGill University
Executive Director Clinical Research Centre
McGill University Heath Centre

DR. JOHN H. SPENCER - We regret to announce the death of Dr. John H. Spencer, formerly a Professor in the Department of Biochemistry McGill University, from 1961-1978 and then he moved to  Queen's University as Professor and then Chair in the Department of Biochemistry until 1990.

John Spencer was born in Stapleford, Nottinghamshire, England, on April 10, 1933. He received his B.Sc (Hons) from St. Andrews University (Scotland) in Biochemistry in 1956. In 1960 he received his PhD from the Biochemistry Department of McGill University in Montreal, and conducted post-doctoral studies there, and then at Columbia University with Erwin Chargaff, the DNA chemist, from 1959 to 1961.

Professor Spencer had a distinguished research career as a biochemist and pioneered approaches to DNA sequencing and the measurement of gene expression.  In recognition of his achievements he was the recipient of many awards and trained a generation of distinguished researchers.

Our sympathy to his wife Magdeline Kulin and their children. [2012 Feb. 22]

DR. ROSE MAMELAK JOHNSTONE, B.Sc. 1950 and Ph.D. 1953 (McGill University) Professor Emeritus, Biochemistry, who was the Chair of the Department of Biochemistry from 1980-1990 passed away in Montreal in 2009 at age 81. Rose was born in Lodz Poland in 1928 and immigrated with her family to Canada in 1936.  As a science student initially planning to specialize in Microbiology, she became enchanted with David Thomson’s lectures in biochemistry and switched fields to finally obtain a B.Sc degree with first class honors.  She then went on to graduate studies at McGill, in the laboratory of the distinguished professor, J.H. Quastel, head of the McGill-Montreal General Hospital Research Institute, where she studied anaerobic amino acid interactions in bacteria.  Following her PhD studies, she undertook post-doctoral research at leading English laboratories including the National Institute of Medical Research at Mill Hill, the Chester Beatty Research Institute in London and the Strangeways Research Laboratory in Cambridge.

In 1956, Rose returned to McGill to take up a position as research associate at the McGill-MGH Research Institute. Then, in 1961, she joined the faculty of the Department of Biochemistry at McGill as an Assistant Professor, and remained there until the end of her life, becoming an Associate Professor in 1966 and a Full Professor in 1977. In 1985 she was named to the Gilman Cheney Chair in Biochemistry.

Rose had a distinguished research record and was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1987 in recognition of her many scientific contributions. Her early research dealt primarily with the metabolism of cancer cells, but soon after, she focused her work on membrane proteins and transport systems. Her major interest became sodium-dependent amino acid transport in mammlain cells and some of her major contributions to this field were insights into the electrochemical component of this process. Starting in the late 1970’s, collaborative studies aimed to understand the intriguing decline of certain transport systems that occurs during red blood cell maturation led Rose into an adventure, which she called “Alice in Blunderland”.  Here, she and her colleagues “stumbled” on “Exosomes” that correspond to intraluminal vesicles within the cell. She then went on to show that shedding of exosomes comprises a route for eliminating specific membrane proteins as the immature red cell (reticulocyte) matures. This serendipitous adventure underscores Rose’s intense curiosity and insightfulness.  Since her identification, there has been considerable interest in exosomes and their function in health and disease, for example, their role in antigen presentation.

Rose’s accomplishments extended beyond her research. As a Professor of Biochemistry, Rose was a dedicated and engaging teacher.  She loved the subject and worked assiduously to stimulate her students with a clear understanding of basic principles. She was also a very active member of the McGill community. She served as a member of the McGill University Senate as well as on countless committees of the University, the Board of Governors, and the Faculty of Medicine.   Rose was a member of the Council of the McGill Association of University Teachers (MAUT) and held the positions of Secretary and Treasurer  in that organization. She also served the scientific community at large: she was a Past President of the Canadian Biochemical Society, a Past President of the Montreal Physiology Society and served as the Treasurer of the Royal Society of Canada between 1991 and 1994.  Among the honours bestowed upon her was the Queen’s Jubilee Silver Medal in 1978.

Rose Johnstone was a warm and generous person with a keen sense of humour and love of life. She spent the last fourteen years of her life with her partner Professor Roy Caplan, living in Israel during fall and winter and in Montreal during spring and summer. They not only had fruitful scientific collaborations, but they shared a love of theatre and opera and travelled extensively throughout the world. Rose was a valued colleague and friend. To her family and friends she was a source of wisdom and strength to which they were always free to turn. She was deeply loved and is sorely missed.

Rose Mamelak Johnstone was predeceased by her husband Douglas and leaves to mourn her partner Roy Caplan, sons Michael and Eric and their children, and siblings Joseph, Helen and Mortimer. [May 14, 1928-July 3, 2009]

Rhoda Blostein, Professor Emeritus
Departments of Biochemistry and Medicine, McGill University

DR. ANGUS FREDERICK GRAHAM, BASc, MASc (University of Toronto), DSc, PhD (University of Edinburgh), Professor Emeritus, Biochemistry (McGill University) died on 4 August 2008 in Montreal at age 92. He was born in Toronto, Ontario, on 28 March 1916. Angus became interested in organic chemistry while studying chemical engineering at the University of Toronto, subsequently pursuing his interests in this field at the University of Edinburgh. While there, he quickly became interested in viruses, as a potential model to study biosynthesis of macromolecular structures. Returning to Canada in 1947, he joined the University of Toronto and the Connaught Medical Research Laboratories to continue his research in virology, and he remained there until 1958. At the Connaught labs, he was the first to show the incorporation of a radioisotope (32P) into a purified mammalian virus (influenzaA). During these years, he conducted research on the relationship between viruses and host cells, using several phages. Further, he directed numerous studies on the fate of infecting viruses and the synthesis of their nucleic acid components. In this time he trained many budding scientists and post-doctoral fellows, one of whom, Dr. Lou Siminovitch, remembers Angus for his insightfulness and encouragement to embark on new endeavors related to the development of the genetics and biochemistry of mammalian cells in vitro; together they published a dozen papers of considerable significance.

In 1958, Angus accepted an invitation to conduct research at the renowned Wistar Institute, associated with the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia. There, he continued to pursue his interests in virology, making important contributions to our understanding of poliovirus, mengo virus, and then latterly, reoviruses. Among these was an important analysis of a plaque assay method for poliovirus. The team he directed on reovirus research became leading authorities in this area.

In 1970, Angus heeded a call to return to Canada, to become the chairman of the Biochemistry Department at McGill University, a position he held until 1980; in 1986 he was awarded the Gilman Cheney Emeritus Professorship of Biochemistry. During this period he continued to train and produce outstanding scientists, some of whom continue to work in Canada. Collectively, this work on reoviruses produced more than 30 important papers in this field. In recognition of Angus’ accomplishments and contributions, he was elected in 1978 as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.

Angus’ legacy to Canadian science extends well beyond his scientific accomplishments and the scientists he helped train; notably, he was instrumental in recruiting outstanding individuals to the Biochemistry Department at McGill and building a cohesive ensemble of superb, productive scientists and educators. A hallmark of Angus’ leadership was the promotion of collegiality among the faculty and his democratic approach to decision making.

Throughout his life Angus travelled extensively, living and working in many countries including the United States, Venezuela, France and England. He enjoyed the outdoors and was an avid rock climber in his younger days. He especially enjoyed skiing with his boys. He read extensively to the very end and never lost his desire to learn and discuss new subjects and ideas. Angus touched the lives of many through his wisdom, humility and humor, and he is greatly missed.

Angus leaves to mourn his wife Jacqueline, two sons, Robert and Andrew, and their families. [March 28, 1916-August 4, 2008]

Peter E. Braun, PhD, Professor Emeritus
Department of Biochemistry, McGill University