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February 5, 2020

Gairdner Foundation Remembers Dr. Frank Plummer (1952-2020)

The Gairdner Foundation sadly marks the sudden passing of Dr. Frank Plummer on February 4, 2020 in Nairobi, Kenya.

Dr. Plummer’s internationally renowned work spanned decades and continents. After receiving his medical degree from the University of Manitoba in 1976, he trained in internal medicine and infectious diseases at the University of Southern California, the University of Manitoba, the University of Nairobi, and the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. He joined the University of Manitoba faculty in 1984 and spent 17 years in Nairobi as the leader of the world-renowned Manitoba Nairobi collaboration. From 2000-2014 he was Scientific Director of the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg, building it into a globally preeminent public health laboratory.

Dr. Frank Plummer was awarded the Canada Gairdner Wightman Award in 2016 “For his ground-breaking research in Africa in understanding HIV transmission and his leadership at the Canadian National Microbiology Laboratory with pivotal roles in SARS, influenza and Ebola epidemics.” He remained a committed Gairdner ambassador, taking part in outreach programs across the country. The faculty and students he gave lectures to often commented on not only his impressive body of work but his candor and sense of humour.

Throughout the 1980s, Dr. Frank Plummer conducted research, facilitated by the University of Manitoba, on a large cohort of Nairobi sex workers which found that two thirds of them had HIV/AIDS which was astonishing at the time. He also showed that about ten percent of these sex workers remain HIV uninfected despite multiple exposures. This identification of natural resistance to HIV has guided vaccine development strategies. He further went on to conduct work on mechanisms of resistance to HIV, risk factors for heterosexual transmission of HIV, mother-to-child transmission of HIV and developed public health strategies for control of sexually transmitted infections. Further research showed that many groups in addition to these female sex workers are immune to HIV. Over the next 16 years, Dr. Plummer remained in Nairobi, and this led to a series of investigations, international collaborations and some critical discoveries about the susceptibility to HIV infection and transmissibility.

His original and sustained contributions in this field have led to innovative strategies for HIV prevention at an internationally recognized level, and are being used around the world to prevent many thousands of HIV infections. Dr. Plummer was a pioneering HIV/AIDS researcher thanks to not only his ground-breaking work but also his leadership as Scientific Director General at the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg, guiding their response to numerous outbreaks including his support and contributions to the development of the Ebola vaccine programs in Canada, SARS treatment in 2003 and the 2009 H1N1 pandemic influenza outbreak.

Dr. Plummer will be greatly missed by everyone at the Gairdner Foundation and the Canadian scientific community. Our condolences go out to his family and colleagues.

Watch Dr. Frank Plummer receive his Canada Gairdner Award in 2016 here.