Frank age 80 on Whiz
FRANK S. LABELLA
September 23, 1931 - July 16, 2022
Frank (‘Sonny’ as a child) was born in 1931 in Middletown Connecticut to Angelo and Felicetta LaBella; with older sister Mary (now deceased) and little sister Angela born 14 years later.
In 1952 Frank got married to Arlyne McDowell after graduating from the prestigious Wesleyan University with a BSc, where he then pursued a Master’s degree. He liked to recount that he got into Wesleyan as the ‘token (Sicilian) townie’ as he said every other student in his year was the valedictorian of their high school from across the U.S. But I later learned that his smarts and future capabilities were recognized as early as grade 2 when the school wrote to his parents advising them of the need to ‘skip’ him and encourage his education. Chatting just a few weeks ago, Frank told me that right to the end of high school he did not see any point to education which he found to be the repetitive learning year in and year out of ‘the same stuff’. This was to change however, when a young family friend named Eddie Russo had a particularly strong effect on him and persuaded him to try a local teacher’s college where, finally, he fell in love with learning thanks to a great science teacher who encouraged curiosity about the world and use of one’s imagination. He was accepted into Wesleyan and to say he had no regrets would be an understatement. He thrived in this demanding environment where, for example, one had to learn to speak and/or write in two languages other than English to graduate with a science degree. Also, being a student and married at the time, he was not drafted into the Korean war. Many of his friends died in that war.
With young daughter Jennifer born by then, Frank and Arlyne moved to Atlanta Georgia for Frank to pursue his PhD at Emory University. These were difficult days. They lived in extremely hot barracks with grass growing through the floor; my mother became pregnant with Michael; and Frank plugged away on his PhD even though he fell ill with the fatiguing ‘infectious mono’ and his supervisor literally disappeared early on. He also worked as a ‘soda jerk’ part-time to help support his family. But, somehow, this student who lost his PhD mentor managed to get a paper published in Nature - one of the two or three top journals in the world.
Frank then decided he wanted to pursue post-doctoral work with American Dr. Mark Nickerson who was probably the most famous pharmacologist in the world at that time. Nickerson had been blacklisted during the McCarthy witch hunt era and had been stripped of his grants, salary, and feared jail or losing his passport. Knowing he had to get to Canada quickly (his family came later) Nickerson tried for staff positions across the country. Dr. Lyonel Israels was familiar with this amazing young man and while places like UBC did not even respond to his inquiries (it has been suggested this was due to northern drift of communist fears) Israels got Joe Doupe to get the President of the University of Manitoba to hire him without delay.
This was the mid-fifties of course, and in 1958 at the age of 27, Frank, Arlyne, Jennifer and now Michael (and Arlyne six months pregnant with me, Lisa) drove their un-air-conditioned beater with their big shaggy dog and $400 U.S. dollars to their name from Georgia to Winnipeg, as Nickerson invited Frank to join the incredible team he was now building.
So began an illustrious career in research pharmacology with young Frank building up a lab from nothing to where it bustled with students, post-docs and scientists from around the world. (As a child I remember all the ‘strange’ foods and gifts that would turn up at our house.) He turned down invitations to head up top departments across North America and he never once took a sabbatical. He said he didn’t want administrative duties or sabbaticals to disrupt a moment of whatever he was working on. He was also a ‘Career Investigator’ of the Medical Research Council for many years, back when the federal government understood the need for ‘basic science’ researchers and wanted to avoid a brain drain out of Canada. Their paying his salary instead of the University allowed him to spend his time in pure research if he wanted, and not have to lecture ‘course material’. Frank was aware he could not feign enthusiasm for course material and Arlyne even nicknamed him ‘Boris’ because some annoyed students had told him ‘you bore us.’ My mother called him Boris the rest of their lives together.
During breaks from the lab, Frank became an undefeated ping pong player in the basement of the Chown building for many years; played tennis with colleagues; and at lunchtime sometimes headed down to the Y to play basketball with the Blue Bombers (several dislocated shoulders suggest this was a mistake). He also loved to sing, everywhere. And he did so regularly at department parties. He was a guy who made sure the janitors (which they were called back then) were an integral part of department celebrations. He said once ‘they were the only ones not invited’. Years later when I was at HSC, one janitor would always break out into song when he saw me, having sung with my dad at parties.
Highlights of awards he won include the J. Abel award of the American Society of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics in 1967; the 1969 winner of the Steacie prize of the National Research Council; and the 1982 Upjohn Award of the Pharmacological Society of Canada for his ‘significant contributions to the advancement and extension of knowledge ....... for his work on brain and pituitary hormones, narcotic drugs, endorphins, digitalis drugs, aging and cell receptors for hormones and drugs. And better known locally is the International Award of the of the St. Boniface General hospital Research Foundation of which he and three other local researchers (including Dr. Lyonel Israels) were the 1983 recipients. He liked to joke that his picture up in the halls of St. Boniface Hospital is between the Pope and Mother Theresa.
Frank never put any of his plaques for awards or academic credentials up on walls. He wouldn’t have seen any point. It was the thrill of ‘truth seeking’ in science that mattered, even more exciting when in an environment of informed and curious minds. And if he discovered he was going down the wrong path and his hypothesis was wrong, then he got excited about jumping into the new direction. Filipe Fernandes, an engineer who became his best friend the last dozen or so years, marveled at my dad’s readiness to turn his living room at the Assisted Living into a physics lab the last several years so they could work on his electric field sensor. Filipe said just a couple of years ago ‘he still has the curiosity of a ten year old’.
Better told by the photos, is Frank and Arlyne’s shared love of horses. After years of us all riding in the exciting equestrian community around Winnipeg in the 60’s, it all just got too expensive on a professor’s salary and so Arlyne and Frank bought ‘high and dry land’ near Birds Hill Park. It was a home where we got to care for our own horses; put out hay piles for hungry deer in the winter; where my dad insisted a racoon family be allowed to birth and be undisturbed in our tack room; and where he brought home dogs abandoned at the local dump. Animals thrived thanks to the compassion of this big-hearted man. He and Arlyne called their 50 acres Snowfield Stables.
Until he passed the baton so to speak, in his late 70’s or so, Frank used his knowledge of toxicology for environmental activism. This could be for Aboriginal communities affected by mining and pulp industries; to expose chemical companies that were misleading farmers and everyone else with respect to pesticide and herbicide risks (resulting in death threats and even bombing of our farm with chemicals); or volunteering at nursing homes to educate staff on the dangers of poly-pharmacy. He testified in Washington on these and other subjects when asked, and I recall once when he was on local TV ‘debating’ the harm of pesticides with the city’s Mayor, he actually walked off with the camera still rolling because the mayor was spouting what would now be called ‘fake information/news’ and the studio’s stacked live audience would cheer every time the mayor spoke.
Frank is also a family man without question. Our mother Arlyne was recently transferred to Riverview from the Rosewood, with later-stage Alzheimer's. Like many in his shoes, losing his spouse to this rotten disease while dealing with his own increasing disability makes for a very tough life.
Frank remained stoic, however, with his physical difficulties while life still allowed him to do so. Miss you already Pops. And am so sorry you suffered in your final days.
Jennifer, Michael, Chloe and Lisa —along with Robbie and Filipe who did much to both help and provide companionship for Frank in recent years-- appreciate your visits to this site. We are also sad to inform you that Frank's beloved wife Arlyne died on September 30th, just ten weeks after Frank's own passing. You can view photos and read about Arlyne on this same website by clicking here.
Frank is survived by us, and many nieces and nephews across the U.S.A, and most importantly, his baby sister Angela Johnson (husband Al).
Frank enjoyed writing three articles for theconversation.com in 2017 he would have undoubtedly loved you to read (and only now noted that all three were reprinted in the National Post). And the song 'O sole mio' on this page was a favourite of Frank's to sing in the shower, or at parties, or ..... when serenading his favourite horse Percy the paint whom he rode for over 25 years.
Memories, Stories and Condolences
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