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Professor David Armstrong

David Armstrong

Professor Armstrong passed away on August 1st 2016. He had been suffering from Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS) and passed away peacefully in London, Ontario among family members.

David had a long and distinguished career in reproductive biology.  He took a Bachelor degree in Animal Science at the Ontario Agricultural College, Guelph (then part of the University of Toronto) and had a `classical’ postgraduate research training with Bill Hansel at Cornell and with Roy Greep at Harvard.  His first post was as Assistant Professor in Anatomy at Harvard. He returned to Canada in 1968 when he took a cross-appointment as Professor of Physiology and of Obstetrics & Gynaecology at the University of Western Ontario in London.  There he set up an Ovarian Physiology group which was to develop into Canada’s, and arguably North America’s, finest.  There he also established and headed a MRC Group in Reproductive Biology, encompassing also implantation, parturition and testicular physiology groups. This long-term block grant-funded group became Canada’s flagship research and training organisation in the area over many years.

David’s early work had identified oxytocin as a luteolytic factor in cattle and showed that it could be used to control oestrus. He was the first to demonstrate the role of LH in luteal progesterone production. Perhaps the most significant and definitive of David’s achievements was the proof of the 2-cell hypothesis of oestrogen production in ovarian follicles, in which theca and granulosa cells respond separately and in combination to LH and FSH, using initially rats and rabbits and, later, extending this to porcine follicles. With Jennifer Dorrington, he demonstrated a similar interaction between testicular Leydig and Sertoli cells in males. Despite laboratory animal physiology continuing to be his `bread and butter’ he maintained, and increasingly developed, an interest in applied aspects of reproduction. To this end he began work on superovulation and embryo transfer in sheep and goats.  Realising the limitations of PMSG and the dearth, cost and reliability of commercial FSH preparations, David set about producing and purifying his own supply of porcine FSH from pituitaries collected at the nearby Guelph abattoir.  David’s extraction, purification and standardisation technology was adopted by the fledgling biotech company Vetrepharm (later Bioniche) and Folltropin® was thereafter commercially produced and marketed world-wide, and is still the most commonly-used superovulatory agent in animals.

David’s laboratory attracted a variety of Australian scientists on sabbatical or for postdoctoral training including Tom Kennedy (who stayed!), Bevan Miller, Tim Weiss and Gareth Evans. It was a brief sabbatical visit to Bob Seamark’s laboratory at the University of Adelaide in 1976 that transformed David’s life.  He fell in love with Australia, its science and, as a regular sailor on Lake Huron, with its sailing. Here he also met his second wife Catherine. He returned the following year for a full year and thereafter he would spend several months each year working in Adelaide. He had a Honorary appointment at the University, and took on supervision and mentoring roles in the Department of Obstetrics & Gynaecology and later at the Robinson Research Institute. In the early 1980’s his work on embryo transfer in sheep and goats simultaneously with Lou Warnes in Adelaide and Evans in London, hence utilising two breeding seasons per year, provided experience that led directly to the establishment of human  IVF programs in both locations; this was Canada’s first and most successful IVF program and Australia’s second.  On retiring from the University of Western Ontario, David moved permanently to Adelaide and continued his involvement with the University and its staff and students for many years thereafter.  After the death of Catherine in 2012 David remained in Australia but, due to declining health, he moved back to London in 2015 to be close to his daughters and their families. He re-established contact with former colleagues at UWO and never lost his interest in science.

David was a workaholic, invariably at the laboratory before and after everyone else, and often at weekends.  He published over 400 papers and trained innumerable Masters, PhD’s and postdoctoral fellows, many of whom have become distinguished scientists in their own right.  He received many honours including Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, an Honorary DSc from the University of Guelph, SSR’s prestigious Hartman Award in 2001, and Life Membership of SRB in 2005.  David is survived by daughters Susan and Meredith and son David and their families, and by many, many students and colleagues throughout the world who have been influenced by David’s outstanding intellect, considered advice and good humour.

Gareth Evans

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