A Life's Story
February 18, 2023
Pharmacology, physics, passion
Frank LaBella, 90, had lifelong scientific career ‘that should be celebrated’
By: Chris Rutkowski
To call someone a Renaissance man is to imply they have a profound knowledge of many different fields of study and have a wide range of professional or personal interest in a plethora of subjects.
According to family and colleagues, that was Frank LaBella.
Although a pharmacologist by training, he was much more, with keen interests in physics, electronics, cancer research — and karaoke.
LaBella died July 16, 2022, at age 90.
In his high school years, LaBella “fell in love with learning, thanks to a great science teacher who encouraged curiosity about the world and use of one’s imagination,” says daughter Lisa.
LaBella was born in Connecticut in 1931, and, within a handful of years, showed signs of precociousness and intelligence (a Grade 2 teacher recommended he be skipped a grade).
He told his daughter that, throughout high school, he didn’t see any point to education which he found to be the repetitive learning year in and year out of “the same stuff.”
LaBella was definitely challenged when he attended prestigious Wesleyan University in his home state, where he had to become proficient in two languages other than English to graduate. He met that challenge easily.
He went on to earn his PhD at Emory University in Atlanta.
LaBella wanted to do post-graduate work with the world expert in pharmacology, Mark Nickerson, who was teaching at the University of Manitoba. So, in 1958, LaBella packed his family into a car and drove to Manitoba. Within a matter of years, he was department head.
“Frank’s scientific career is one that should be celebrated,” says Dr. Donald Smyth, professor emeritus in pharmacology at the U of M Rady Faculty of Health Sciences.
“In the 1960s, Frank was awarded a Manitoba Research Council career scientist award. This national award paid Frank’s salary to allow him to focus primarily, if not solely, on research for his whole academic career.”
LaBella’s scientific prowess had been displayed early on. In 1957, he had an article published in the renowned scientific journal Nature as sole author — something almost unheard of these days, when multiple authors are the rule rather than the exception.
LaBella was “a scientist’s scientist,” if ever anyone could be called that.
“He turned down invitations to head up top departments across North America and he never once took a sabbatical,” Lisa says. “He said he didn’t want… to disrupt a moment of whatever he was working on.”
Even more indicative of LaBella’s focus: of the many honours and awards for his outstanding research, he refused to put any such notice on his office walls.
“It was the thrill of ‘truth seeking’ in science that mattered, even more exciting when in an environment of informed and curious minds,” Lisa says.
Truth seeking, he did. In a physics forum, LaBella stated simply: “My research career revolved around several areas: neuroscience, aging, cancer, endocrinology. For the past several years, I have worked exclusively with a patented electric field sensor with novel capabilities that I discovered accidentally.”
Smyth explains: “Compared with today, so little was understood in the 1960s. The brain is essentially an electric soup of chemicals. Frank was one of the forerunners trying to identify specific substances released from the hypothalamus that regulated the release of hormones from the pituitary gland.”
UM professor emeritus Dr. Dan Sitar says: “As a mentor, Frank LaBella was outstanding in probing the knowledge base of students preparing for their postgraduate oral examinations. His approach to evaluation was able to determine whether the trainee actually understood the biological concepts that he probed.”
Following his retirement from the pharmacology department, LaBella didn’t stop his pursuit of knowledge. He merely shifted gears.
“His good friend and colleague in the department, Carl Pinsky, had expertise in electronics,” Smyth recalls. “They teamed up to develop a scanner which could detect substances underground… like something from Star Trek.”
“Once my dad started working with Carl, he became focused on sensors and magnetic fields,” Lisa says. “He changed the direction of his research completely.”
Even in his declining years in an assisted living complex, LaBella turned his room into a physics lab. He doggedly pursued varied interests, publishing articles and comments about matters of significance.
As recently as 2017, LaBella had three pieces published in the Conversation, an online forum that allows scientists to communicate directly with journalists and the public. In one, he lamented research has suffered from bureaucratic mainstreaming and a lack of understanding of how science progresses best through breaking new ground and encouraging innovation.
“No longer is there unquestioned support for the curiosity-driven research traditionally associated with individual scientists delving into their own hunches and embarking upon scientific fishing expeditions,” he wrote.
Another editorial had the unusual and provocative title: “How home security resembles dancing honeybees.” (It’s because they both use electric fields to monitor the environment.)
LaBella didn’t just discuss bees, but mosquitoes.
In the 1980s, when Winnipeg was in the midst of an invasion of the nuisance insects, LaBella advocated against the use of insecticides, specifically one called Baygon.
LaBella’s pharmacological expertise directed him to caution aerial spraying of the chemical would be “disastrous,” killing not just mosquitoes but also bees and fish, and making humans ill. He staunchly opposed the casual use of herbicide and other chemicals that could harm people and the environment, and even testified at hearings on the issue in Washington, D.C.
Outside his research, LaBella was reportedly unbeatable at table tennis. He played tennis and basketball regularly, and was unabashedly outstanding at karaoke.
Horses (including polo and fake fox hunts) were a pastime shared with his wife, Arlyne, and their children.
His daughter says his love for animals was immense. He would set out hay for deer during the winter, and he brought home abandoned dogs.
Above all, LaBella’s compassion may have outshone his scientific ability.
In the 1960s, a recent immigrant to Winnipeg who had been successful at getting a job at the U of M was caught in some red tape and, as a consequence, his first paycheques were delayed a few months. LaBella helped cover the man’s mortgage until the payments went through, allowing the family to establish themselves in the city.