H1N1 Suspected in Death of U of O Professor

November 13, 2009
Ottawa Citizen

Loss of father of three, 38, shocks scientists around the world

A "brilliant" 38-year-old University of Ottawa chemistry professor whose "trajectory of scientific success is second to none in Canada" has died of suspected H1N1.

Keith Fagnou died Wednesday in the intensive care unit at The Ottawa Hospital, three days after he was admitted. He had no known underlying medical conditions, according to Ottawa Public Health.

Fagnou, a father of three young children, was married to Dr. Danielle Gervais-Fagnou, a family doctor with the University of Ottawa's health services clinic.

This is Ottawa's fourth H1N1-related death since Sept. 1.

Fagnou's former PhD supervisor said in an interview that the death would change the way we look at the threat of H1N1. "Everybody thinks it will happen to someone else, somebody who has some kind of additional illness," said Mark Lautens, a professor from the University of Toronto, where Fagnou did his doctorate.

"Keith was a seemingly healthy person who got very sick, very fast. As soon as I heard the news I felt sick to my stomach, and then I thought, this is going to change the way we look at this kind of disease," Lautens said.

"We think it's someone in the high-risk groups. But here is someone who is healthy and vibrant, who is active and doing the right sorts of things and who took care of himself. And not only that, his wife is a doctor."

Lautens said the death of his former student has shaken the scientific community. "I've had e-mails from China, Harvard, all over the U.S., France."

The University of Ottawa released a statement late Thursday mourning the loss of the gifted researcher and professor, who was the University Research Chair in novel catalytic transformations.

His research group focused on improving the preparation of complex molecules for petrochemical, pharmaceutical or industrial uses. The program is part of the "green chemistry" movement aimed at searching for more efficient chemical processes to help the environment.

Fagnou joined the University of Ottawa's faculty of science in 2002 and won several prestigious awards including the Polyani Prize in 2003, the Governor General's Gold Medal and the Premier's Research Excellence Award.

Most recently Fagnou became the first Canadian to win the OMCOS award in organometallic chemistry. The award is presented every two years to a scientist under 40 in recognition of outstanding research contributions in that field.

Fagnou actually began his career in the military, before becoming a high school teacher in Saskatoon.

Lautens recalled how Fagnou came to him as a young teacher from Saskatchewan who realized he had a passion for chemistry. He moved to Toronto to take advanced-level chemistry courses.

"He came into my office one day and asked if I would hire him as a summer research student." Usually summer students' salaries are paid using their scholarships, but Fagnou's situation was a bit different. "He had already finished his degree and he wasn't really eligible for those scholarships."

Lautens took a calculated risk and paid Fagnou's salary. "That turned out to be a very smart decision on my part," adding, "He was very creative and very observant. He would find results that were unexpected."

"He was the most prolific student I think who has ever worked with me in 25 years." He and Fagnou published as many as 10 papers together.

Once Fagnou completed his PhD he was hired immediately by the University of Ottawa. "Now almost everybody everywhere goes and does post-doctoral work, but he went straight to the University of Ottawa and that was very very unusual."

Lautens recalled how Fagnou would hold "ABBA Fridays" in his lab and play music by the Swedish rock band all day long.

"He had that quintessential Canadian modesty, despite his great success. His trajectory of scientific success is second to none in Canada. He was winning all the top awards, getting all the best students, getting invitations to present all over." Lautens recalled, though, how his former student had his priorities right. He turned down one recent request to speak because he didn't want to miss trick-or-treating with his children.

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Read factsheets, Q&As, and the latest details on the Citizen's H1N1 minisite online at ottawacitizen.com/flu


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