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Dr. Orrie M. Friedman, 94, biotech pioneer

Dr. Orrie M. Friedman founded Collaborative Research Inc. and was also a professor emeritus of chemistry at Brandeis. Dr. Orrie M. Friedman founded Collaborative Research Inc. and was also a professor emeritus of chemistry at Brandeis. (Dominic Chavez/Globe Staff/File 2007)
By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / July 1, 2009

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Weary of life in western Canada, where he supported himself playing poker after graduating from college, Orrie M. Friedman sneaked a ride on a cattle train to Montreal in 1935. Visiting a friend at McGill University, he recalled, stirred the “first quirks of intellectual curiosity’’ in someone who, at that point, was far from scholarly.

“I went to the admissions office at McGill with my crappy academic record, not expecting to be admitted,’’ Dr. Friedman told the Globe in 2007, “and it turned out the guy knew my father.’’

The son of a bootlegger, Dr. Friedman found a calling in graduate school that was as far removed from his poker playing past as Montreal was from his boyhood home in tiny Grenfell, Saskatchewan. Dr. Friedman, who founded Collaborative Research Inc., which helped pioneer the field of biotechnology, then used his riches for philanthropy, died in his Brookline home Sunday of complications from Parkinson’s disease. He was 94.

Working into his 90s, he had turned his attention to finding a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, which contributed to his brother’s death several years ago. Until becoming ill, Dr. Friedman believed he would spend another decade conducting productive research.

“People in my family live forever,’’ he said in the 2007 interview. “The old man didn’t retire until he was 99, and lived to be 104.’’

To see Dr. Friedman in his office at Brandeis University, where he was a professor emeritus of chemistry, was to believe he might just be right.

“Unlike others, who would want to be retired, he was ready for the next big discovery,’’ said Nancy Winship, senior vice president of institutional advancement at Brandeis.

“And he always had a smile on his face as if to say, ‘We’re not quite there, but we could be soon.’ ’’

Dr. Friedman first began teaching at the Waltham campus in 1953, when he left a faculty position at Harvard Medical School to be part of the new Brandeis graduate chemistry program. In 1961, he left Brandeis to start Collaborative Research in the nascent days of an industry not yet called biotechnology.

“Orrie really is the founder of biotech,’’ Al Kildow, a retired biomedical consultant, told the Globe in 2007. “His company was the first biotech company - though they didn’t even call it biotech back then - and he set up the model that all other biotech companies followed, with an elite scientific advisory board to advise the directions they should pursue.’’

He also set an example of how to keep a vibrant life outside the laboratory, skiing into his mid-80s and then picking up the brush to create painting after painting that captured the colors of the landscape around his vacation home in Taos, N.M. Using money made in biotechnology, Dr. Friedman and his wife, Laurel, donated $1.5 million to Temple Israel in Boston. The temple named its Trudy Friedman-Bell Religious School in honor of the Friedmans’ daughter, who died in 1997 six months after giving birth to twins Lucy and Hannah.

“I can’t take it with me and it’s the least I can do,’’ Dr. Friedman told the Globe two years ago.

In what Winship called the largest donation ever by a faculty member, he also donated $3.5 million to endow a chair in his name in chemistry at Brandeis.

“Orrie Friedman was really a man of remarkable talent,’’ said Jehuda Reinharz, president of Brandeis. “He lived life as it should be lived, to the fullest, I would say, with both his head and his heart. Through his passionate pursuit of excellence in both science and medicine, his dedication to the advancement of scientific understanding improved and will continue to improve countless lives.’’

While growing up, Dr. Friedman moved with his family from Saskatchewan to Winnipeg, Manitoba, where he graduated from the University of Manitoba in 1935.

At McGill, he studied chemistry and received a doctorate for his study of RDX, an explosive under development for use in World War II. During postdoctoral work at Harvard Medical School, he helped develop the cancer drug Cytoxan, before joining the Brandeis faculty.

In the late 1950s, Dr. Friedman met Laurel Leeder on a blind date. Each had been married before; they wed in January 1959.

“He was one of a kind,’’ she said. “He marched to his own drummer. He was honest, honorable, single-minded, decent, and purposeful. It was quite a life journey.’’

Much of that journey was spent at Collaborative Research, based in Lexington, where scientists conducted cutting-edge research into the relationship between genes and disease. More than three decades after founding the company, he retired as chairman, and the firm was sold and renamed Genome Therapeutics Corp.

“We pioneered a whole flock of areas,’’ he told the Globe in 1994, the year he retired.

Dr. Friedman conceded, however, that “timing is everything in life.’’ While Collaborative Research was “early, ahead of most people,’’ other companies used venture capital to gain access to large sums of money, “while I wanted controlling interest, because I said, ‘I don’t need those guys to tell me how to run a company, I can do it myself.’ ’’

Soon after leaving Collaborative Research, he opened GrenPharma, housed in the Kalman building at Brandeis, and began researching Alzheimer’s disease. Scientists there pursued a theory that a class of organic silica-based compounds could dissolve the amyloid plaque buildup that has been found in the brains of those diagnosed with the illness.

Success would have brought significant financial rewards, which he planned to donate to Brandeis if they materialized. Ever interested in expanding the boundaries of research, Dr. Friedman shrugged off the potential payoff.

“Considering where I started from and where I wound up,’’ he said during the 2007 interview, “life owes me nothing.’’

In addition to his wife and granddaughters, Dr. Friedman leaves three sons, David of Katonah, N.Y., Hank of Taos, and Mark of Seattle.

A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. tomorrow in Temple Israel in Boston. Burial will be in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.

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