A University of Alberta graduate is the first recipient of a new award which is being described as Canada's highest scientific honor.
Raymond Lemieux, '43 BSc, who is credited with transforming the field of carbohydrate chemistry from something "near magic" into a rigorous and productive science, is the first winner of the Canada Gold Medal for Science and Engineering, an award created by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada to honor sustained and outstanding contributions to Canadian research.
The Gold Medal was presented to Dr Lemieux, a professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Alberta, during a gala ceremony at Ottawa's National Arts Centre on 15 January. The presentation was made by Canada's minister of science, the Honorable William Winegard.
Dr Lemieux's selection was announced at the University of Alberta on 10 January. An NSERC communique containing the announcement described the U of A graduate as the ideal first recipient of the Canada Gold Medal: "His extraordinary accomplishments in organic chemistry, biology, medicine, theoretical and physical chemistry have put him in the forefront of international research for almost five decades. He is considered the modern pioneer of the field of carbohydrate chemistry. His original research has led to major developments in immunology, immunochemistry, and biology."
NSERC President Peter Morand, who was at the U of A for the announcement of the award, said Dr Lemieux is one of the country's most creative scientists and has shown a rare talent for getting science to the marketplace. He went on to describe Lemieux as "a true hero of Canadian science."
Dr Lemieux has received dozens of honorary degrees and awards from the United States, France; Great Britain, Sweden, Switzerland and Canada. In 1990, at the age of 70, he was awarded the King Faisal International Prize in Science from Saudi Arabia.
Dr Lemieux was born in Lac la Biche, Alberta and attended high school in Edmonton. After graduating from the U of A he went on to earn a PhD in organic chemistry at McGill University in 1946. Since then his research and academic careers have taken him to Ohio State University, the University of Saskatchewan, the National Research Council, the University of Ottawa and, in 1961, back to the University of Alberta, where he continues his world-class research.
The inaugural winner of the Canada Gold Medal for Science and Engineering began attracting international attention in 1953 when he achieved the first total synthesis of sucrose. Then, with insight born from wide scientific knowledge, he turned to a new high resolution imaging technique known as nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectros copy to determine the shapes of molecules in solution and how these relate to their chemical properties. Until Lemieux's recognition of its utility as a research tool in organic chemistry, N MR was exclusively the province of physical chemists and physicists. His pioneering research during this period - research considered far ahead of its time - contributed now classic technique and concepts in organic chemistry to laboratories around the world.
In many ways, however, this work was simply preparatory to the pursuit of his overriding interest in how molecular associations can occur between an antibody and a carbohydrate. This interest was to lead to research that has been described as "exceptionally elegant and exceptionally important." In addition to contributing new knowledge about how molecules "recognize" other molecules, his investigations paved the way for the synthesis of a wide variety of antigenetic determinants for human blood groups.
Reagents resulting from this work are now produced commercially in Canada and used around the world to control antibody-induced pathologies such as tissue rejection. In addition, techniques he has pioneered may have long-term applications in controlling biological processes associated with cancer and AIDS.
Dr Lemieux has been instrumental in the founding of three companies, including Chembiomed Ltd., a world leader in the synthesis of biologically active carbohydrates, and he is credited with laying the foundation for Western Canada's growing biotech industry. In his honor the University has created the Raymond U Lemieux Lectures on Biotechnology. Funding for this lecture series was announced by U of A President Paul Davenport at the January news conference held to make public Lemieux's selection as the winner of the NSERC gold medal.
Published Spring 1991.