F. Clarke Fraser is a pioneering Canadian medical geneticist and one of the first MD-PhD’s who combined an interest in genetics research with practical applications to improve patients’ lives. He spent most of his teaching and research career at McGill University in Canada, where his early work in mouse and Drosophila genetics gradually led him into human genetics. After serving in the Canadian Air Force as a bombardier in WWII, Fraser returned to the lab, where he carried out seminal research in teratology, introduced new methods of genetic diagnosis and developed the principles of the emerging specialty of genetic counseling. Clarke Fraser was involved in the formation of the Canadian College of Medical Geneticists, and remains influential in field of human genetics.
Clarke Fraser was born in the United States, on March 29, 1920, but his cultural roots have always been in Nova Scotia. He became interested in genetics as an undergraduate at Acadia, where he received his BSc in 1940. While serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force, he completed a PhD in genetics from McGill in 1945 and later used his RCAF Veterans’ Allowance to attend medical school, earning the MD in 1950.
Fraser started the Division of Medical Genetics at The Children’s Memorial Hospital (now The Montreal Children’s Hospital), and eventually became the Molson Professor of Human Genetics at McGill. For three years, in 1982-85, he took on the challenge of developing a new program in Medical Genetics at Memorial University in St John’s, Newfoundland. At the age of 65, he returned to McGill as Molson Professor Emeritus. In 1999, he retired to his family home in Nova Scotia.
Fraser laid the foundations of teratogenetics, when he realized that the litters of female mice given cortisone had a higher occurrence of cleft palate and that the frequency of this condition varied with the genotypes of both mother and pups. This research provided the experimental basis for a multifactorial threshold model of congenital malformations.
He helped to develop the principles of genetic counselling and analyzed the heredity patterns and genetic risks of many disorders and dysmorphic syndromes. In addition, he studied parents’ perceptions of and attitudes toward genetic risk.
Fraser has published extensively in the fields of human genetics and teratology, co-edited (with James G. Wilson) a 4-volume Handbook of Teratology (Plenum Press, 1977-78), and co-authored (with James Nora) two text-books, The Genetics of Man (Lea and Febiger, 1986), and Medical Genetics: Principles and Practice (Lea and Febiger, 1989), that jointly ran through seven editions. He has been active in editorial and consulting work throughout his life. Many of his trainees went on to productive careers in Canada or elsewhere.
Clarke Fraser was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1985, and received a number of awards, including the Blackadder Award of the CMA (1968), the Allen Award (1978) and the Award of Excellence in Education (2000) from the American Society of Human Genetics, and the Wilder Penfield Prix de Quebec (1999). He contributed his insights and labours to a number of national and international committees, including the MRC committee on Genetics, the NIH Genetics Study Section, and the WHO Expert Advisory Committee on Human Genetics, and also served as President of the American Society of Human Genetics (1961-62), the Teratology Society (1962-63), and the Canadian College of Medical Geneticists (1980-83). From 1990-93, he was head of the working group on genetics and prenatal diagnosis of the Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technologies.