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Dr. Frank Plummer, a world-acclaimed microbiologist renowned for his work in Africa pioneering breakthroughs in HIV/AIDS research, has died suddenly at the age of 67.
Plummer, who was a University of Manitoba professor emeritus and former scientific director general of the federal National Microbiology Laboratory, was born in Winnipeg and lived in Toronto.
He was visiting Kenya when he died, said Keith Fowke, head of the U of M's department of medical microbiology and infectious diseases. Fowke was in Kenya with Plummer last week, celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the U of M's research collaboration with the University of Nairobi.
"He was sounding bright, and it was great to talk to him," said Fowke. "He was very enthusiastic about some of the projects that he's been working on. He was continuing to work on an HIV vaccine, and he was very enthusiastic about that. And I had no clue that this could happen. It's very sudden and unexpected."
Plummer reportedly died of a heart attack, Fowke said. Plummer's wife, Jo Kennelly, his stepdaughter, and two of his three daughters were with him in Kenya over the past week, according to a family friend.
Fowke met Plummer in 1988, becoming his first graduate student. He remembered his mentor first and foremost as a preeminent scientist with remarkable skills across multiple scientific disciplines.
"He made outstanding contributions to identifying that HIV could be transmitted to women, which was unknown at the beginning of the epidemic. He identified that HIV could be transmitted to babies, and even through breast milk, and then identified that male circumcision could reduce the risk of HIV... So it's a gross understatement to say that he probably saved hundreds of thousands of lives from being affected by HIV."
Beyond his scientific accomplishments, Fowke remembered Plummer as a generous, welcoming personality.
"I think I'll always remember Frank's big smile, and how he always cared about people, and how he was a genuinely, very wonderful and nice person."
Terry Duguid, member of parliament for Winnipeg South, worked with Plummer to establish the International Centre for Infectious Diseases in 2004.
"He was the face of calm during the SARS crisis, and really established the National Microbiology Laboratory as a leader in the world in diagnosing and combating novel infectious diseases," recalled Duguid.
"I received an email from Frank last week, and he said that he might not come back to Winnipeg because he was in heaven. That's a direct quote. He loved Africa, and it's sad that he's not coming back to us, but he at least got to visit the land that he loved before he passed away."
In addition to his work heading the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg, Plummer served as a senior scientific advisor to the Public Health Agency of Canada and director general of the Centre for Infectious Disease Prevention and Control. He was an officer of the Order of Canada and a member of the Order of Manitoba.
In a press release issued Tuesday afternoon, U of M president David Barnard hailed Plummer as "a prime example of dedication and passion in one's profession."
That dedication may have had a downside for Plummer. In 2019 he told the Free Press he was an alcoholic, an addiction that stemmed from job-related stress. As part of his treatment, in December 2018 Plummer underwent surgery to implant two electrodes in his brain. The procedure, performed at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, was part of a research study into the use of deep-brain stimulation to treat alcoholism.
"Seeing a bottle doesn't bother me," Plummer said a year after the surgery. "I just don't think about it,"
A Sunnybrook spokesperson said Tuesday that the hospital was "deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Dr. Frank Plummer and (extends) our most heartfelt condolences to his family and loved ones."
Canada's chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, eulogized Plummer in a message posted to Twitter on Tuesday, remembering him as "a scientific maverick who helped set up and make (the Public Health Agency of Canada's) National Microbiology Laboratory a world class institution. He made outstanding contributions to public health, both through his research and his leadership."
Plummer's protege, Keith Fowke, said the microbiologist was "one of the great scientists in Canada, if not the world."
"And he was very proud of the fact that he came from Winnipeg, and that people from Winnipeg do great things, and he's just one example."
With files from Kevin Rollason