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Flu linked to death of 'rising young chemistry star'

A rising academic star and healthy father of three young children has been identified as one of Ottawa's latest victims of the H1N1 influenza virus.

Keith Fagnou, 38, died on Wednesday in an Ottawa hospital, days after falling ill with what relatives and friends say was the H1N1 flu. A renowned chemist at the University of Ottawa, Mr. Fagnou is not believed to have had any underlying health issues.

He leaves behind his wife Danielle Gervais-Fagnou, who is a doctor, and their three young children: Zachary, 7; Clara, 4; and Samuel, 22 months.

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"I just couldn't believe it. Shocked. I still don't believe it," said cousin Shawna Weeks, one of many relatives in Saskatchewan who were preparing to fly to Ottawa this morning. "He didn't have any health issues … we didn't even know he was in the hospital."

University of Toronto professor Mark Lautens said Mr. Fagnou, who did graduate studies under his supervision, was "phenomenally successful" in the field of catalytics.

In 2003, Mr. Fagnou won a coveted John C. Polanyi Award, a prize given to a researcher who has made an "outstanding Canadian advance in a field of the natural sciences or engineering." He was promoted to the role of associate professor two years ago, given the title of University of Ottawa Research Chair in the Development of Novel Catalytic Transformations, and this year became Canada's first winner of the international OMCOS award in organometallic chemistry.

"I think it's safe to say he was the most high-profile rising young star in chemistry in Canada," Mr. Lautens said last night from Berlin. "I think people put a lot of hope in him for the future of Canadian chemistry, and he was really living up to the billing."

Raised in Saskatoon and an avid hockey player, Mr. Fagnou earned a bachelor's degree in education and taught high school briefly before returning to study chemistry at the University of Toronto. He met his wife while both served in the naval reserves. Mr. Lautens recalled him as a fun-loving researcher who enjoyed country music and posted cartoons on his academic web page.

A proud father, Mr. Fagnou chose not to attend a conference late last month so as to be able to take his four-year-old daughter trick-or-treating, Mr. Lautens said.

"He was invited to go all over the world [through his work] but still he was paying attention to these things … focusing on the stuff that was actually important," he said.

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Ottawa Public Health has not formally identified him, only saying that an adult male with no underlying health issues died Wednesday with what is suspected to be a case of H1N1 influenza. It was the fourth death in Ottawa this fall to be linked to H1N1. A fifth death was announced yesterday.

"I think [news of the H1N1 involvement]certainly has sent a chill down my spine. He has a spouse who's an MD … you just think, he's as lucky as you can be in the Canadian system of having a highly qualified and loving person right there. And still, there's just some things you cannot control," Mr. Lautens said.

The University of Ottawa issued a statement expressing its "great sadness" at his sudden death.

A funeral service is planned for Sunday at Ottawa's McEvoy-Shields Funeral Home.

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