Obituary - Louis T.J. Delbaere (1943 - 2009)

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Louis T.J. Delbaere (1943 - 2009)

ACA RefleXions, Winter 2009



We were all deeply saddened to hear that Louis T.J. Delbaere passed away suddenly on October 5 in Mississauga. Louis will be remembered by all of us for his winning and ever-present smile and his enthusiastic passion for his chosen science - x-ray crystallography. Below are the recollections of a number of us who knew Louis well, highlighting his science, mentorship and dedication to his family and the crystallographic community.

Louis’ Early History: Manitoba, Oxford and Alberta (Michael James)

Louis was born and raised in St. Boniface, Manitoba. He attended the University of Manitoba where he received his BSc. in Honors Chemistry and his PhD. also in Chemistry. Louis began his enthusiasm for x-ray crystallography by working in the laboratory of Bob Ferguson, a mineralogist who infected many students from honours chemistry with his passion for x-ray crystallography. After receiving his PhD, Louis traveled with his wife Carol to Oxford for a post-doctoral fellowship in chemical crystallography where he worked with Keith Prout, Boris Kamenar and Louise Johnson from the Laboratory of Molecular Biophysics. Louis’ major contribution from those days was the determination of the structures of two carbohydrate- amino acid structures, N-acetylglucosaminyl asparagine and glucosylasparagine. These two structures definitively characterized the covalent linkage between carbohydrates and proteins. Louis and Carol then moved to Edmonton where Louis took up a postdoctoral fellowship with Ray Lemieux in the Chemistry Department at the University of Alberta. Louis did some outstanding crystallographic work in Ray’s lab and made a major contribution to understanding the structural features of the human Lewis blood-group determinants. He also collaborated with S. Masamune in the Chemistry Department on the structure of methyl-tri-tert-butyl [4] annulene carboxylate. This structure proved definitively that the [4] annulene ring was not square as suggested by several other influential chemists but that it was rectangular. I had the pleasure of working closely with Louis while he was with Ray Lemieux and was very pleased that he too got excited by protein crystallography. Louis was a key figure in our successful determination of the first protein structure to be done in Canada, that of Streptomyces griseus protease B (SGPB). Louis worked with Gary Brayer on the structure of the related enzyme SGPA and together they determined many structures of enzyme-product complexes with SGPA. Gary and Louis collaborated on the structure of a-lytic protease the enzyme that started it all off when Larry Smillie of the Biochemistry Department sequenced a-lytic protease and we managed to crystallize it. Last but not least Louis collaborated with I-Nan Hsu on the structure of penicillopepsin an aspartic peptidase from a fungus. The pair of them were the first to determine the structure of an aspartic peptidase in a field with three competing groups hotly on “our tails”.

It must sound like all that Louis did was to work hard. He also had other interests and pastimes. In Edmonton, we had a squash club that would get together every Thursday evening for co-ed squash. We were not very good but we did enjoy the relaxation in the Faculty Club after this “hard” physical exercise. Louis had a passion for attending horse races that almost matched his passion for science. He was often found at the track with the racing sheets, going over the best bets of the day. Louis and Carol lived in suburban Duggan while they were in Edmonton. Their two children, Christian and Michelle were born in Edmonton and there were many family gatherings at the Delbaere home celebrating varied occasions. Louis and Carol had a very closely-knit family and their friendship and happiness was shared with all.

Louis in Oxford (Stanley Cameron) 

It will be 40 years next year since Liz and I first met Louis and Carol; indeed Louis and I shared, very harmoniously, a tiny railway carriage of an office as postdocs in chem-cryst with Keith Prout in the inorganic labs in Oxford. Louis and Carol were the first Canadian couple we had ever met and we marveled at their amazement that in Oxford you could see to the end of nearly every street – something of a rarity apparently in their home town of Winnipeg. We were in and out of each other’s homes quite a lot and have many happy memories of those times. On one occasion, in the night, their little Mini was hoisted up on its axles, and while somewhat precariously balanced on four birdhouses, its four wheels were stolen. Carol was, what we later came to recognize as, "Canadian polite incandescent." Louis however, though far from pleased, could see the humor as he viewed their little Mini hoisted in the air, with four thoroughly cheesed-off families of Chickadees fluttering around their displaced homes: “Bird houses for crying out loud!” was his comment, repeated with increasing emphasis but never quite expletive. Some days later he cheerfully reported that he had a “great deal” on some replacement wheels. These, to my rather jaundiced eye, looked the exact replica of the stolen ones and I was tactless enough to say so. “You mean, I bought my own wheels back?” Louis said with a wry chuckle!

That was Louis, straight forward, honest, fair and uncomplicated, looking for and expecting the best from people. Only a few years after Louis and Carol returned to Canada, Liz and I followed. He and I met on various crystallographic occasions and committees. As a committee chair he was a dream: open, direct, no hidden agendas, and incorruptible. After a reasonable length of discussion, he would sum up: This is the way we see the problem, this is what needs doing, this is how we feel it should be done and I will do this part. Quietly and efficiently whatever bit he said he would do, got done. As a friend and colleague, I deeply miss Louis; Canadian crystallography has lost a great ambassador.

Louis in the Biochemistry Department, University of Saskatchewan (Wilson Quail)

In 1979, Louis moved to the Biochemistry Department of the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon as an associate professor with a Medical Research Council of Canada Development Grant to start the first protein crystallography lab at the University. I was in the Chemistry Department at the time and was very interested in the possibilities of setting up a crystallography lab. Louis and I ultimately ended up sharing some students and facilities. Lata

Prasad came to work for Louis in 1986 as a research associate and has continued in the lab until the present. Her knowledge and experience as a crystallographer was and continues to be a valuable asset for the lab.

In 1988, Louis and I obtained our first synchrotron data set at the EMBL outstation at DESY in Hamburg, thanks to the help of Keith Wilson and Zbigniew Dauter. The candidate crystal was one of Griffonia simplicifolia lectin IV complexed with a synthetic Lewis b blood group determinant. The compounds were supplied by Ray Lemieux. Previous data on this crystal form obtained on a lab x-ray source could not be solved, but the synchrotron data gave a publishable structure. Subsequently, synchrotron data from other crystals were obtained at the Photon Factory in Tsukuba, Japan, NSLS at Brookhaven, the APS at Argonne National Lab and on return visits to Hamburg. Louis became interested in growing protein crystals in zero gravity. An experiment that he set up resulted in crystals of the Jel42 Fab fragment that were superior to earth grown crystals. This was the first successful crystallization of a protein in space by a Canadian lab. Good data resulted in better structures and papers. Papers on the structures of Griffonia simplicifolia lectin IV complexed with a synthetic Lewis b blood group determinant, Ulex europaeus lectin I complexed with a synthetic O(H) blood group determinant, the histidine-containing phosphocarrier protein HPr from Enterococcus faecalis, the trifluoperazine complex with calmodulin, phosphoenolpyruvate carboxykinase and the V8 Protease from Staphylococcus aureus were published.

In the mid 1990’s, Saskatoon was selected as the site to build a Canadian synchrotron. Because he was one of the few scientists in Saskatoon with experience at a synchrotron, Louis took on the job of getting the Canadian scientific community behind the idea. He organized mini-symposia on synchrotron applications for protein crystallography around the country. He spoke with members of the granting agencies. He lobbied scientists in other areas that might use synchrotron radiation. Others worked on getting the University to support the idea and then getting politicians at both the provincial and federal levels behind the idea. Amazingly, it all came together and the Canadian Light Source (CLS) is now in Saskatoon. Louis didn’t do it all by himself. Many were involved, but his contribution was critical. Louis continued his involvement with the CLS as it was constructed, brought into operation, and then expanded. He was the project leader for the first protein crystallography beamline at the CLS.

Louis was in the second year of a seven-year term of a prestigious Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Structural Biochemistry when he died. Louis worked on many committees to advance science at all levels. He had been the Chair of the Canadian National Committee for the IUCr since 2005. He was President of the ACA in 2005. At the Osaka IUCr meeting in 2008, he successfully led the committee promoting Montreal as the site for the IUCr meeting in 2014 and he had recently been elected for a six-year term to the executive (EC) of the IUCr.

The welfare of his students was always important for Louis. He took great efforts to get good positions for his students. Their successes were his successes.

Louis’ family had high priority in his life. His fourth grandchild had just been born in Ottawa. Louis had stopped over for a day in Toronto to visit a cousin on his way from Buffalo to Ottawa to meet his new grandson. He collapsed on Saturday, October 3 and died on October 5, 2009. He will be greatly missed by his many friends and colleagues. 


Top - left: Louis presenting the Etter Early Career Award to Jennifer Swift (ACA 2005);
right: Louis and Carol at the opening reception (ACA 2005).
Bottom - left: One of the many hats he wore during his remarks opening the banquet in Orlando (2005),
right: Louis, Mike James and Bob VonDreele at the banquet (ACA 2009).

Louis as Supervisor and Mentor
(Gerald F. Audette)

The development and progress of his students was a central priority of Louis throughout his career. By the numbers, Louis supervised or co-supervised seven PhD students, eight Masters, five postdoctoral fellows and research associates, a number of technicians and countless undergraduate honors projects and summer students. Louis’ group at the University of Saskatchewan was never so large that students got lost in the crowd, and he took great pains to help his students secure good positions for themselves following the receipt of their degrees. Of the PhD students Louis supervised, four are now professors in their own right (Osama El-Kabbani, 1987; Zongchao Jia, 1992; Scott Napper, 1999; Gerald F. Audette, 2002), one is a research officer at the NRC in Montreal (Allan Matte, 1996); one has just joined the CLS (Shaunivan Labiuk, 2003) and one is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg (Julien Côtélesage, 2007). Louis’ group at the time of his passing included a post-doctoral fellow, two PhD students and his long-time research associate Lata Prasad.

To his students, Louis was more than just a supervisor – he was a mentor and a friend. Louis’ style was one of quiet enthusiasm and encouragement. He was always available to discuss problems, directions and the latest crazy ideas that we’d come up with. He taught us to follow the data, be open to various viewpoints and methods, be patient and to “trust the electron density ... it doesn’t lie”. Things like that apply not only to crystallography, but also to our view of the world as a whole. He instilled a passion to make sure that the correctness of the analysis and the crystallography, rather than the flash of the story, was what was critically important. He taught us not to over-interpret the data, but to make sure it was correct, and from there to move forward confidently in addressing our hypotheses. He also felt that an important part of his students training was their participation in the community. He encouraged everyone to be a member of the ACA, and to present posters at least once a year at a conference. These conferences were primarily the annual ACA meeting, but also included the IUCr congress, various Canadian meetings and the Erice meetings. This was something that we all took advantage of; they had an unspoken and often unappreciated (by us at the time) value. Louis would make a point of introducing all his students to his colleagues during poster sessions and other formal and informal situations; we’ve all ended up with international networks of professional contacts and colleagues. I remember Louis' enthusiastic support of my attending the Erice meeting in 2000 over the 1999 IUCr congress; his thoughts were simple – the smaller setting of Erice would result in more productive interactions for me. He was right; being one of 4 Canadians at the meeting (including Louis and Carol) of about 90 delegates provided me with a fantastic opportunity to interact with and discuss the science with all the presenters, to put faces to names and to develop my own international network of colleagues.