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Friday November 30, 2012

Teacher, researcher, mentor, mother

She fought hard to become a scientist, published nearly 200 papers, wrote a textbook on veterinary genetics and won an array of teaching awards

Special to the Globe and Mail

When Parvathi Basrur and her husband, Vasanth, moved to Guelph, Ont., an hour's drive west of Toronto, they were conscious of being what seemed the only visible minority family in the community. When Basrur breezed by in her brightly coloured saris, people on the street would stop and stare.

"It wasn't anything she took to heart," recalled her husband gently. "She thought it was quite comical."

By the time she died of heart problems in Guelph on Nov. 10 at the age of 83, Basrur had become the first woman appointed professor at the University of Guelph's Ontario Veterinary College, and a pioneering, internationally respected authority on animal genetics and their application to livestock production.

As her 2004 Order of Canada citation explained, she helped breeders around the world improve their livestock's milk- and meat-producing capabilities through her work with the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and other aid organizations.

In a career that spanned six decades, Basrur was fascinated (as she put it) by the "magic" of chromosomes, focusing on animal health, reproduction and response to environmental exposure to toxins and carcinogens. Since the 1960s, her main areas of research were reproductive problems in domestic animals and hybrids, such as cattle-bison and goat-sheep hybrids, and genetic disorders in veterinary animals.

It's estimated she contributed to the training of more than 5,000 veterinarians around the world.

Remembered as a generous, inspiring teacher and matriarchal mentor, Pari Basrur came to be known as "Dr. B." and often, affectionately, as "Mama Basrur" to dozens of graduate students.

Her own daughter, Dr. Sheela Basrur, was the public face of Toronto's 2003 SARS crisis. Through daily briefings on the outbreak, which claimed 44 lives, the province's diminutive chief medical officer of health became a household name known for her reassuring tones and calm demeanour.

While an anxious city tuned in to television updates to learn what had transpired on the SARS front, Parvathi Basrur would watch just to see her daughter. "When I saw her on TV, my heart went out to her," Basrur told an interviewer in 2004. "She used to joke about it, but I thought she looked emaciated. I would worry. We didn't see a lot of her during that time."

Sheela Basrur died in 2008 of a rare vascular cancer. She was 51.

"Sheela was her angel," said Ed Reyes, a research technician who worked alongside Basrur for 40 years. Parvathi "had a very nurturing, caring heart. She was motherly to a lot of people, especially students from overseas. She was a confidant, friend and mother to me."

And by all accounts, she was determined to become a scientist. She was born in 1929 in a village in the South Kanara district of Madras, in British India. Her father was an itinerant teacher and poet, while her mother took care of the couple's seven children. In high school, young Pari already found herself at odds with officials.

"I had to fight hard with the admission committee to be allowed to take the science option, as opposed to history, language or economics," she wrote in a short biography for a science journal in 2009. The school's headmaster, "a hefty and imposing individual, was convinced that a boy could really benefit from a science option, while it will be wasted on me."

Her father, "who was ahead of his time and environment by 200 or 300 years, had great hopes for me, even though I was 'only a girl.' He was proud of everything I did and supported me, under great financial difficulty," Basrur recounted for a University of Guelph publication.

The headstrong young woman went on to earn a bachelor's degree in biology and a master's in genetics from the University of Mysore, where she met her future husband. He left in 1954 for the University of Toronto to pursue a PhD; she missed him and followed a year later to do the same.

But as soon as she arrived, Basrur took ill with mitral stenosis, a contraction of the heart valve. "Instead of starting my studies, I went from the ship to the Toronto General Hospital, and I was in great trouble."

Following what was then considered dangerous closed heart surgery, she spent more than a month recovering in hospital. "So that was my beginning in Canada," she told @Guelph. "But it was actually one of the most incredible things that happened to me because it brought me in contact with some wonderful Canadians."

The couple married in 1956 (a year after that, Pari Basrur had a small part in the television drama Seeds of Power, about a nuclear power plant in India, written by Arthur Hailey).

She landed at the Ontario Veterinary College in 1959, where, according to her husband, she encountered almost no resistance from the male-dominated staff. In the early 1960s, she even got to collaborate with her spouse, who's still a practising radiation oncologist. In those days, the only way to study animal cells and chromosomes was by culturing blood cells. Basrur and her husband, then a medical resident at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, were able to develop the method for culturing small biopsies of solid tissue from mammals.

Between teaching a full course load, she researched nickel-induced muscle tumours in rats, ingestion by animals of tobacco leaves, and Aleutian Disease in mink, in which she showed, for the first time, a link between the virus that causes the infectious disease and the virus's harmful effects on chromosomes.

Basrur was made a full professor in 1967 and she retired in 1995. She was the recipient of more than $1.8-million in research grants during her academic career, published nearly 200 papers in refereed journals, presented as many papers at scientific meetings, contributed 10 chapters to books, wrote a textbook on veterinary genetics, and co-edited five books. She won a slew of teaching awards.

"I was an undergraduate student and I was doing badly in school," recalled one of Basrur's former students, W. Allan King. "I was lost. I had no focus in life. I took one of her courses and I was inspired." King went on to do graduate work under Basrur, completed a doctorate, and is now a professor at the Ontario Veterinary College. "My office was next door [to hers]," he said.

"She had an amazing mind and great vision. She could see possibilities that others didn't. She looked at cancers, reproductions and a number of issues relating to humans and animals [and] made a case for connections. She not only learned the techniques, she developed the techniques the next generation used."

As for her famous daughter, Sheela trained as a general practitioner but became deeply committed to the importance of public health after travelling in India - part of "a world tour that quickly became an eye-opener for her," Basrur would relate.

In Nepal, Sheela saw a clinic swamped with patients suffering from preventable diseases. "She saw the raw effects of not having sufficient health education," said Basrur, explaining her daughter's switch from family practice to public health.

Basrur too saw a good part of the world, mainly to share her knowledge with researchers and farmers in developing countries to find solutions to fertility-related reproductive problems in animals. She travelled to Brazil several times and set up a laboratory there to find out why the local cows, pigs and horses weren't breeding for the Canadian Executive Service Organization, a non-profit group that provides development expertise in Canada and around the world (she was the first woman to serve on its board). After eight weeks, she discovered the defective gene causing the problem, got it under control, and educated the local farmers. She did the same in Cuba and Malaysia. The Brazilian government established a scholarship in her name.

Basrur leaves her husband, Dr. Vasanth Basrur, daughter Jyothi and three grandchildren. A celebration of her life will take place Saturday, Dec. 15 at 2 p.m. in Rozanski Hall, at the University of Guelph.

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