Dr. Raymond Lemieux enjoyed a brilliant career in carbohydrate science research. He was President and Research Director of Raylo Chemicals, which developed ways to produce substances such as semisynthetic antibiotics, rubber-related compounds, and heavy water. Chembiomed was formed to exploit Dr. Lemieux’s carbohydrate chemistry research for the medical-care industry; particularly in bloodbanking.
Raymond Lemieux was born in Lac La Biche in 1920. His parents homesteaded there, but moved to Edmonton when he was six to enable their children to have the schooling advantages that the larger center offered.
Chemistry was Dr. Lemieux’s favorite subject in high school; he was encouraged by John Convey, a graduate student in physics, who was then courting his sister Annette.
He recalls: “After examining a text book on physical chemistry at the public library … I asked John if he knew that the product of the specific heat and the atomic weight of an element is 6.4. It was a bit discouraging to learn that I had rediscovered the Dulong-Petit law, which dates back to 1819. Nevertheless, the seed for my career as a chemist was really planted then.”
He entered the University of Alberta in 1939 and led his class in the freshman chemistry courses. After graduating with a B.Sc. in Honors Chemistry in 1943, he began graduate studies at McGill University, where he obtained his Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry in 1946.
At this time, the discovery that the antibiotic streptomycin was a carbohydrate promised a surge of activity concerned with the role of carbohydrate structures in living organisms. Dr. Lemieux won a postdoctoral scholarship at Ohio State University, where he undertook research on the structure of streptomycin, sponsored by Bristol Laboratories Inc.
“There can be no argument that this move, more than any other, set the pattern for my life as a research chemist,” Dr. Lemieux commented.
He met his future wife, Virginia, at Ohio State (she was studying for a Ph.D. degree in high-resolution infrared spectroscopy) and they were married in New York City in 1948.
Following the Ohio State work, Dr. Lemieux returned to Canada, to continue what was to be a brilliant career in carbohydrate science research. He joined the University of Saskatchewan as an Assistant Professor for two years, then accepted a position as Senior Research Officer with the National Research Council’s Prairie Regional Laboratory in Saskatoon. There he initially investigated the use of wheat starch (because of the large wheat surplus that existed). About a year after his arrival, the NRC suggested he pursue whatever research area he desired.
“This simple vote of trust opened my way to fundamental studies of the physical and chemical properties of carbohydrates and paved my return to academia,” Dr. Lemieux said.
In 1953, prior to leaving the NRC, he and a postdoctoral fellow, George Huber, announced the synthesis of sucrose to wide acclaim, and he was invited to speak at an influential seminar on the chemistry of natural products in New Brunswick, an opportunity he regards as seminal to his career.
He moved to Ottawa in 1954 to establish the Department of Chemistry and to help build the newly founded Faculty of Pure and Applied Sciences. In addition to building an exceptionally strong department “in an atmosphere of research”, he firmly established a leading international standing in chemistry through major basic contributions to the improvement of the understanding of chemical bonding and to the determination of molecular structures and shapes.
In 1961, Dr. Lemieux and his family came home to Alberta, where Harry Gunning was building a strong Department of Chemistry with world-class research facilities. Dr. Lemieux became Professor and Chairman of the Division of Organic Chemistry. He was appointed University Professor in 1981 and named Professor Emeritus in 1985.
While Dr. Lemieux’s life work was basic research, there have been extremely significant applications of this work that are largely responsible for the nucleus of high technology industry in Alberta.
A year after his arrival in Edmonton, Dr. Lemieux founded R&L Molecular Research Ltd., which focused on the development of semisynthetic antibiotics. This led to the establishment of Raylo Chemicals Ltd. (which subsequently purchased R&L) where Dr. Lemieux was President and Research Director. Raylo’s main activity was the development of processes for the production of a wide range of substances including semisynthetic antibiotics, rubber-related compounds, and heavy water for customers worldwide. In the 1960’s, Raylo was the largest private sector employer of Ph.D.s in Alberta and later spun-off founders of other high technology enterprises in Edmonton.
In 1977, the initially university-owned corporation, Chembiomed Ltd., was formed to exploit the growing potential of Dr. Lemieux’s research in carbohydrate chemistry to the medical-care industry; particularly the bloodbanking area. The company also led in other areas of diagnostic technology, including techniques to achieve successful organ transplants when tissues are not compatible.
Dr. Lemieux was widely acknowledged for his accomplishments and captured many prestigious awards for chemistry in the world. The American Chemical Society published his memoirs, Explorations with Sugars: How Sweet it Was, as part of a series of 22 books by some of the world’s most eminent organic chemists.
His major awards included: the King Faisal International Award for Science, 1990; an honorary Doctor of Philosophy from the University of Stockholm, 1988; the Tishler Award, Harvard University, 1983; the Haworth Medal of The Royal Chemical Society, England, 1978; and the C. S. Hudson Award of the American Chemical Society, 1966. He was elected a Fellow of The Royal Society of London in 1967, a great distinction shared by few living Canadian scientists.
Canadian awards include the Gairdner Foundation International Award, 1985; the Medal of Honour, Canadian Medical Association, 1985; the Sir Frederick Haultain Prize, Alberta, 1982; the Izaak Walton Killam Prize of The Canada Council, 1981; Officer of the Order of Canada, 1968; the Palladium Medal, Chemical Institute of Canada, 1964.