Bert Fraser-Reid

The career of Bert Fraser-Reid (born 1934) in chemistry research focused on carbohydrate reactivities and organic compound synthesis from carbohydrates. His findings allowed the Canadian Forestry Service to use a biological means of pest control in timber management. Other research projects of Fraser-Reid (with oligosaccharides, a complex sugar) brought us closer to finding a cure for such immune deficiency diseases as AIDS.

Bertram Oliver Fraser-Reid was born in Coleyville, Jamaica, on February 23, 1934, to parents who both worked in the educational field. Fraser-Reid's father, William Benjamin Reid, served as a school principal. His mother (Laura Maria Fraser) was a teacher, who died during Fraser-Reid's first year of life.

By the time Fraser-Reid had completed secondary school in Jamaica, his education was equivalent to that of a second year college student in the United States. He was able to begin teaching—the field he had chosen for his career. Fraser-Reid served as a junior master at the secondary school that he had graduated from. In the next few years, he pondered whether teaching was really the career of his choice. An accomplished pianist and organist, Fraser-Reid considered switching to music. During this time, Fraser-Reid met Stanley Shepard, who had been hired to teach math, physics, and chemistry, but intensely disliked chemistry. Intrigued by his peer's feelings about chemistry, Fraser-Reid began to study the subject on his own, facilitated in part by a book which he read titled Teach Yourself Chemistry. Fraser-Reid became fascinated with chemistry as he learned more about this aspect of science. His curiosity was to shape the direction of his career.


Academic Study and Research

Fraser-Reid went on to study chemistry at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, after ruling out study in the United States during the racially charged 1950s. He began his studies in 1956 and assisted organic chemist J.K.N. Jones with research on sugar chemistry. The research had potentially far reaching implications, since sugar and related substances comprise most organic chemicals and since sugar can be broken down to provide animals with life-sustaining energy. Fraser-Reid began to gain recognition for his research in sugar chemistry and was rewarded with scholarships during his undergraduate years. He earned his bachelor's degree in 1959 and remained at the university to work toward a master's degree, continue his sugar chemistry research, and assist Professor Jones. Fraser-Reid was awarded his Master of Science degree in 1961.

Anxious to continue his education, Fraser-Reid began doctoral studies at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada. For his doctoral research, Fraser-Reid studied the use of nuclear magnetic resonance in determining the structure of complex molecules. During his doctoral study, Fraser-Reid also became reacquainted with Lillian Lawrynyuk, a woman he'd met at Queen's University. Fraser-Reid and Lawrynyuk were married in 1963; they later had two children, Andrea and Terry. Fraser-Reid was awarded a Ph.D. in 1964. For the next two years, he worked in a postdoctoral position at the Imperial College in London, England. He was exposed to international chemistry research and began to think about the mechanics of carrying out ongoing research programs.


Manipulated Sugar Chemistry to Create Synthetics

Armed with experience from his postdoctoral position, Fraser-Reid returned to the University of Waterloo near Toronto, to continue his sugar chemistry research. He was interested in determining whether more complex materials could be synthesized from the sugar molecule. For the next 14 years (1966-1980), Fraser-Reid determined that sugar could be used to create many carbon-based chemicals, medicines, plastics, and paints. He also discovered that the chemical industry could rely on sugar cane and sugar beet derivatives, rather than petroleum, as a raw material. This was a significant finding in light of possible petroleum shortages. Fraser-Reid's research presented alternatives in the manufacture of plastic and pharmaceutical products.

Fraser-Reid's research in sugar chemistry led him to study insect chemistry, specifically pheromones which insects used to attract members of the opposite sex. He found that sugar chemistry could be used to duplicate pheromone qualities and to prevent certain wood-eating insects (such as the Pine Beetle) from destroying trees. The Canadian Forestry Service, thanks to the research of Fraser-Reid, was able to use synthetic pheromones to interrupt insect mating cycles in lieu of the dangerous and banned insecticide, DDT. His findings contributed to forest management practices and prevented timber damage.


Continued Academic Career

By the late 1970s, Fraser-Reid had developed a reputation as a productive research scientist and had attracted the interest of academic institutions in the United States. Initially reluctant to leave Canada, he eventually accepted a position with the University of Maryland at College Park in 1980. He remained there until 1982 and conducted research on the chemical structure of materials that could be used to fight or slow cancer.

After his work in Maryland, Fraser-Reid accepted a professorial chair at Duke University, in North Carolina and began his work there in 1982. He continued his sugar chemistry research and worked on variations in assembling sugar-based synthetics. Fraser-Reid focused on sugar chemistry as it pertained to virus cell membranes—these viruses adjusted sugar content in their cell membranes when they invaded other cells. Fraser-Reid worked toward pinpointing a chemical process and adjustment that could thwart virus cells from producing this membrane. He continued his research at Duke into the 1990s. A prolific researcher, Fraser-Reid had published 250 papers by 1990. He also spent time traveling and speaking to audiences throughout the world.

During his tenure at Duke, Fraser-Reid focused on the biochemistry of oligosaccharides, which he called "among the most important biological regulators in nature … they regulate the whole immune system." Through his research with oligosaccharides, he hoped to make strides toward a cure for immune deficiency diseases such as AIDS.


Mentor for Minority Students

As a black man, Fraser-Reid had a particular motivation in assisting minority students with an interest in chemistry. Due to his efforts, several minority students at the high school and college level were able to work alongside chemists at Duke University laboratories. Fraser-Reid recognized the value of mentorship in the scientific field. But he was quick to comment on the challenges of attracting minority students to science in America, noting that "the black students in my classes are first and foremost Americans, and over the past 15 to 20 years Americans have not been going into science and engineering."

Fraser-Reid supplemented his academic research with related professional activities. He served as a member of a chemistry study section for the National Institute of Health (NIH) from 1979 to 1982. He also served on pharmacological review panels for the NIH between 1984 and 1988, and served in a consulting capacity to firms like Burroughs-Wellcome, SCM Organic Chemistry, and Glaxo. Fraser-Reid served as a member of organizations including the Chemical Institute of Canada, the American Chemical Society, the American Institute of Chemistry, and the British Chemical Society. Fraser-Reid continued to pursue his passion as a keyboard musician and regularly performed international organ recitals. His research on oligosaccharides earned him a nomination for the Nobel Prize in chemistry.


Further Reading on Bert Fraser-Reid

American Men and Women of Science, 1998-99, 20th edition, R.R. Bowker, 1989.

Kessler, James, H., et. al.. Distinghished African American Scientists of the 20th Century, Oryx Press, 1996.

Notable Twentieth-Century Scientists, edited by Emily J. McMurray, Gale Research, 1995.

Who's Who in America, Marquis Who's Who, 1995.

Who's Who in Science and Engineering 1996-1997, 3rd edition, Marquis Who's Who, 1996.