Raymond Lemieux: leading the carbohydrate revolution

This article was originally written and submitted as part of a Canada 150 Project, the Innovation Storybook, to crowdsource stories of Canadian innovation with partners across Canada. The content has since been migrated to Ingenium’s Channel, a digital hub featuring curated content related to science, technology and innovation.

Raymond Urgel Lemieux discovered how to synthesize sugar. Source: University of Alberta.

Daniel Prinn

Algonquin College Journalism Program

Raymond Urgel Lemieux may not have climbed a mountain to gain fame, but the chemistry professor’s widely acclaimed discovery of synthesizing sucrose, (table sugar) is largely considered the “Mount Everest of organic chemistry.”

In 1953, Lemieux succeeded in synthesizing sugar while at the National Research Council’s Prairie Regional Laboratory. This was remarkable because it allowed us to understand sugar’s molecular, three-dimensional structure. And it was just the first of Lemieux’s many contributions to chemistry. From there, he went on to lead the creation of a new chemistry department at the University of Ottawa in 1954. He also forged a new method called nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, which is a technique used to understand the structure and nature of carbohydrate molecules.

Arguably the most important accomplishment in his career was in 1961 at the University of Alberta. There Lemieux introduced the synthesis of carbohydrate structures called oligosaccharides, making easier to research them by creating a synthetic version of the carbohydrate. This research was vital for understanding how carbohydrates bind to proteins – which then became useful for cancer treatment, particularly leukemia.

During his career, Lemieux held over 30 patents, many for antibiotics. He also became a Companion of the Order of Canada. Lemieux died in Edmonton in 2000. He was inducted into the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame in 2004.

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