About an hour’s drive southwest of Winnipeg, the town of Morden juts out of the sprawling prairie flats. Henry Friesen grew up here, the third of four boys. His father, who emigrated from Ukraine, ran an oil, gas and lumber businessoccasionally young Henry had to skip class to pump gas or help with the books. “I enjoyed the responsibility,” recalls Friesen, 67, who visits his 99-year-old dad regularly.
On Saturday nights, before they had running water, Friesen remembers his hardworking mother, “a wonderful woman,” melting ice on their woodstove to ready a bath for the boys. In another room, his father, a lay ministerio the region’s staunch Mennonite community, prepared sermons. “He had firm views, but he wasn’t harsh,” says Friesen. “He was understanding of human nature.”
The same could be said of his son. Friesen graduated from medical school at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. But instead of becoming a practitioner, he pursued research, unravelling the secrets of human hormones, first at the New England Medical Center in Boston, then later at Montreal’s McGill University and, again, at the University of Manitoba.
Friesen’s work has had a profound impact-25 years of studies led to growth-hormone replacement therapy for unusually short children. But his crowning achievements have been to discover prolactin, which, in excess, causes infertility, and to help develop a drug to control the hormone, allowing women to have children. For his prolactin work, the prestigious Gairdner Foundation in Toronto be-
stowed him with one of its awards-one in five Gairdner recipients has gone on to win a Nobel Prize.
Friesen’s cherubic red cheeks and owlish glasses suggest the clichéd mild-mannered scientist. But he is a tireless and formidable administrator, a quiet man with a reputation for getting things done. In 1991, he took over as head of the Medical Research Council, the country’s lead agency for funding health studies. At the time, the MRC focused on just basic and clinical research, but Friesen broadened its scope to fund studies on all aspects of health. Today, he chairs Genome Canada, jetting between his Winnipeg home and Ottawa office to oversee the $300 million he helped convince the federal government to free up for gene studies.
His life, says Friesen, has been blessed. While in Boston he met his Canadian-born wife, Joyce, a nurse specializing in pediatrics, and they have two grown children. His scientific and administrative prowess has earned him the Order of Canada, membership in the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame and this year’s Gairdner Foundation Wightman Award for “extraordinary achievement as a creative scientist and distinguished leader.”
Looking back, Friesen says it was an unusual opportunity and privilege to not only discover prolactin, but to see onceinfertile women become mothers. Scientists, Friesen says, don’t always get to watch their discoveries help people. “It’s often the promissory note that drives you,” he says, “but to actually see it happen is hugely gratifying.”
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