A Legacy of Excellence: The Professor Bertram Fraser-Reid Story


The story of noted international chemist, Professor Bertram Fraser-Reid, could aptly be called ‘the power of a book’, as it tells of a young man, whose love for reading and interest in chemistry, led him to purchase a book, which changed the course of his life and placed him on a path that would lead to groundbreaking discoveries in the field of synthetic chemistry.
But it could also be called ‘journeys in chemistry’ as it chronicles the Professor’s life from humble beginnings in Manchester to achieving worldwide acclaim in his field. Along the way, the 2007 Musgrave Gold Medallist, who developed a love for music at an early age, became an accomplished pianist and has given recitals at notable venues such as Cathedral de Seville in Spain.
Whatever the title of his story, it is one of a legacy of excellence, as the Professor’s work in using carbohydrates as starting materials for chiral materials, and on the role of oligosaccharides in immune response, has had a profound impact on the agricultural sector, in treating malaria, and is recognised as being very important in the search for cures for immune deficiency diseases such as AIDS.
Despite the worldwide acclaim, including a reported nomination for the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1998, the Manchester native remains true to his humble beginnings, and credits his success to hard work, discipline, dedication, and the never ending quest for excellence.
In a recent interview with JIS News, Professor Fraser-Reid reflects on the many roads he has travelled during the course of his very colourful life, which begins in the hills of Christiana in 1934.
“My dad taught at Bryce Elementary School where he was the headmaster and where I spent what must have been the first nine years of my life and it was on reflection, a very good childhood. We never had a radio or a gramophone but there were lots of books and my father would go to Kingston and bring back books and we would sit around and read at nights,” he recalls.
Professor Fraser-Reid believes that it was that early introduction to reading that opened the door to the wider world. “I realise now that this was very good training as it helped to develop a very wide perspective even from my youth,” he says.
After his father’s retirement, the family relocated and in 1946, at age 12, he began his secondary education at Excelsior High School in Kingston. It was at Excelsior that his love for music developed, while his classroom work suffered. “There were times when I would skip school to go (to concerts) and listen and as a result, I came second to last in the class so my father took me away,” he tells JIS News.
He was transferred to Clarendon College the next year, where he spent four years as a student, and another five years as a junior teacher. He notes that while “they had some botany, zoology, some biology” the tutors were not properly trained to teach the sciences and areas such as chemistry and physics were not taught at the school.
Four years into his teaching stint, the first official science teacher, a Jamaican who had gone to study in England, came to the school to teach physics, but according to Professor Fraser-Reid: “I just did not like it”.
“I could not understand it, but one cannot teach physics without mentioning a few chemistry compounds,” he notes.
It was then that he made the decision that would set the course of his life. “I went to Sangster’s Book Store and bought a book entitled: ‘Teach Yourself Chemistry’ and I read it and decided that this was what I wanted to do,” he tells JIS News. In 1956, at age 22, Professor Fraser-Reid enrolled at Queen’s University in Canada, where he did his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemistry. He went on to do a PhD at the University of Alberta and then went to England for two years of advanced training.
Professor Fraser-Reid returned to Canada in 1966 and taught chemistry at the University of Waterloo for 14 years. Influenced by a British Chemist, under whom he studied at Queen’s University, the primary emphasis of his work at this point was the synthesis of chiral natural products using carbohydrates as the starting materials.
In 1980, he moved to the University of Maryland in the United States and relocated to Duke University in North Carolina in 1982. In 1985, he became the James B. Duke professor of chemistry.
“In the late 1980s, I had become a pretty efficient carbohydrate chemist in my laboratory at Duke University. We discovered a reaction that could be used to link biological sugars together and this had certain implications when applied to certain bugs or viruses such as those that cause malaria or even AIDS,” he tells JIS News. The Professor has a personal interest in malaria having contracted the disease at age 13, but remained undiagnosed for a long time.
The Professor, who retired from Duke in 1996, has established the non-profit Natural Products/Glycotechnology Research Institute to study the carbohydrate chemistry/biology of tropical parasitic diseases in Third World countries, with one goal being to develop a carbohydrate-based malaria vaccine.
In terms of the applicability of his groundbreaking discoveries, Professor Fraser-Reid tells JIS News that: “We used our discovery first in relation to African Sleeping Sickness and some years later, after a call from the World Health Organisation (WHO), to combat malaria, for by that time, I had established my own private laboratory and had found ways to synthesise the necessary toxins for use by biologists.”
Over the years, Professor Fraser-Reid’s sugar chemistry has been used in the control of insects that are harmful to agriculture. His discovery that he could copy pheromones, which could be utilized by the forestry service, because it prevented wood-eating insects from ruining trees, has helped to safeguard forests in Canada and Latin America.
His current findings may have long-term implications in the development of an AIDS vaccine as well as a drug that will help to fight the new strains of tuberculosis that are resistant to conventional drugs.
For his work, the Professor has received many awards including the world’s premiere award in carbohydrate chemistry the Haworth Memorial Medal and Lectureship from the Royal Society of Chemistry, United Kingdom in 1995. In that same year, he was also named the North Carolina Chemist of the Year and was elected Fellow of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science.
He is also a recipient of the R.E. Jeffrey Memorial Medal of the New South Wales Chemical Division Society in Sydney, Australia; the award in Carbohydrate Chemistry from the American Chemical Society and the Percy Julian Award from National Organization of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers.
But for all these honours, the accomplished Jamaican, who has co-authored more than 330 publications, says he is most humbled by the Musgrave Gold Medal, which is presented by the Institute of Jamaica. “Of all the awards and recognition I have been fortunate to have received from other countries of the world such as Canada or even England, this one must take pride of place and it is from my beloved homeland,” he says.
He expresses the hope that “my achievement will help to stimulate and encourage young Jamaicans to follow after their dreams, to have hope and to be consistent in their quest for excellence”.
“Remember, my journey began by simply buying a book called: ‘Teach Yourself Chemistry’,” he says.

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