Frank Plummer radiated calm. Whether he was clashing with Kenyan officials about the spread of HIV in that country or leading the fight against SARS from his Winnipeg lab, Dr. Plummer, with his unruly hair and arresting brow, possessed a quiet, unruffled demeanour.
A pioneer in HIV research and former scientific director of Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory, Dr. Plummer thrived in high-pressure situations.
“The stress and the high-[intensity work], he loved it. He absolutely loved it,” his wife, Jo Kennelly, said in a recent interview.
Dr. Plummer, one of Canada’s leading scientists, died Feb. 4 in Nairobi, where he attended an annual meeting of an international HIV research collaborative he helped found. He was 67. Colleagues said he was feeling unwell while at lunch with his daughters, and collapsed as he returned to his hotel. He was driven to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead upon arrival. The cause of his death was not yet known at the time of publication.
Born in Winnipeg on Dec. 2, 1952, he was the eldest of four children in a family of educators. His father, Donald Plummer, a principal at the Manitoba School for the Deaf, and mother, Muriel (née Lints), a kindergarten teacher, led a happy, music-filled household, in which raised voices were seldom heard. He spent summers at his grandparents’ farm in rural Manitoba, playing and helping attend to the cows. He was devastated when he found out where beef came from, according to Dr. Kennelly.
While his mother encouraged him to attend medical school at the University of Manitoba, his enthusiasm for medicine was only sparked when he came upon internal medicine, a field that required “a detective approach,” he told The Globe and Mail in a 2003 interview. After graduating, he went on to do an internship in internal medicine at the University of Southern California Medical Centre in Los Angeles, before returning to Manitoba for his residency.
The death of his mother, at the age of 52, soon followed by the death of his father, had a profound impact on the young medical resident, who was unable to help her, Dr. Kennelly said. His lasting memory of that day was of his mother squeezing his hand, telling him to stay strong and to stay on his chosen path. Dr. Plummer recognized he had come to a fork in the road of his medical career: He could focus on treating one person at a time as a clinician, or work toward improving the lives of many as a researcher. The first option he found too painful.
His life’s work was inextricably tied to the country in which he died. He first visited Kenya in 1981 to help renowned Canadian infectious diseases expert Allan Ronald set up a research program to tackle an outbreak of a sexually transmitted bacterium called chancroid. However, the team, called the University of Manitoba-University of Nairobi Collaborative Research Program, soon turned its attention to HIV/AIDS as it became clear the disease was sweeping the country.
The existence of HIV/AIDS in Kenya was a development that local officials were not keen to make public. Yet, in spite of his soft-spoken nature, Dr. Plummer was unafraid of rocking the boat, his friend, colleague and former student Keith Fowke recalls.
“He was insistent that this was important information, and that he was going to get it out,” Dr. Fowke said. “No matter if the new information was [something] that people didn’t want to hear, the data was the data, and he would share that data.”
Dr. Plummer and his team went on to generate further controversy with numerous groundbreaking revelations. Although initially considered radical, these findings helped inform efforts to tackle HIV infection worldwide, saving tens of thousands of lives and improving countless others. Among them was the discovery that some Kenyan sex workers were resistant to HIV infection. This provided the basis for a search for a vaccine – a mission he continued to work on in his final moments.
In an interview last month, while reminiscing about his early career in Nairobi, Dr. Plummer said he saw himself and his colleagues as the pursuers in the classic Western film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, ever chasing their elusive targets through uncharted terrain.
“We were doing amazing things, [yet] we were nobodies, you know, competing with Harvard and Yale and Oxford and everybody else,” he said. “That’s my thinking about how people were reacting to us, just ‘who are these guys?’”
After 17 years in Kenya, Dr. Plummer returned to Manitoba and went on to steer the National Microbiology Laboratory through the 2003 SARS epidemic and its development of an Ebola vaccine. He also guided Canadian public-health policy in his various roles, including chief science officer, senior adviser and acting chief public-health officer at the Public Health Agency of Canada.
His list of honours and awards take up more than a full page of his CV, in single-spaced, 11-point font. Among them: the prestigious Canada Gairdner Wightman Award in 2016, the Killam Prize in 2014 and his appointment as an officer of the Order of Canada in 2006.
When asked to describe him, his fellow scientists frequently used the word “brilliant” and referred to his “out-of-the-box” thinking.
Dr. Ronald, for example, said the two first met when Dr. Plummer was completing his medical studies at the University of Manitoba. “He was brilliant and he quickly mastered complex molecular biology that was beyond me,” Dr. Ronald wrote in an e-mail.
Larry Gelmon, his friend and colleague based in Nairobi, said he possessed a creative mind, finding new ways of conducting research and raising questions no one else had asked. He also had a knack for inspiring loyalty and bringing other talented individuals together, he said.
As much as the contributions to science he and his team made, Dr. Plummer took pride in this collaborative spirit of the Manitoba-Nairobi project. It was no mere exercise in “safari research,” where scientists would parachute into a country, collect data and disappear, he told The Globe in January. Rather, the Canadians established long-term ties with their Kenyan counterparts to build clinics and lasting research infrastructure, and created partnerships with their study participants.
“It didn’t matter what tribe you were, it didn’t matter what colour your skin was. If you could do something worthwhile, then you were part of the team,” he said.
Privately, Dr. Plummer struggled with health problems, including alcohol use disorder, liver failure and, recently, tongue cancer. He spoke publicly about these health issues in December, after receiving experimental brain stimulation at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre to treat his alcohol use disorder. The treatment greatly reduced his drinking, boosted his energy, lifted his depression and gave him his life back, he said. At the time, Dr. Kennelly, who affectionately referred to him as “the smartest man in Canada,” expressed enthusiasm for her husband’s new interest in cooking, as he produced beautiful meals for their family.
Feeling better than he had in years, Dr. Plummer tackled multiple projects, foremost, launching a company with Dr. Kennelly aimed at finally making an HIV vaccine a reality.
Kenya, the country he loved and where he raised three children with his previous wife of 33 years, Carla Plummer, continued to beckon, along with its unsolved HIV crisis.
In Kenya this January for the annual meeting and 40th anniversary of the Manitoba-Nairobi program, he and Dr. Kennelly finally took the honeymoon, for which they never had time after their 2009 marriage. They were joined by Dr. Kennelly’s 18-year-old daughter Imogen. During their visit to the Maasai Mara reserve where they stayed in tented rooms along the Mara River, he told Imogen this was what heaven looked like for him.
In the days prior to his death, Joshua Kimani, his mentee in Nairobi whom he regarded as a son, said he was meeting with sex workers participating in the continuing HIV research program he helped build. In spite of his vast accomplishments and international renown, Dr. Plummer was a shy man, Dr. Kimani said, yet he never seemed as comfortable and at home as he was among these women at the fringes of society.
Dr. Plummer died doing the work he loved best, Dr. Kimani said. “I think he died a happy man.”
He leaves his wife, Dr. Kennelly; daughters, Mariel, Jamie and Danica; grandson, Tobias; stepchildren, Bel, Liv and Imogen; siblings, Margaret, Donald and Mary Ellen; and his beloved dog, Rosie.