Kelvin Kenneth Ogilvie Organic Chemistry

Synthesized (RNA) ribonucleic acid, and invented the drug ganciclovir

"The more we understand the world around us at the molecular level, the greater the role of chemistry in helping us further unravel life's secrets and bring opportunities including better health and nutrition to all societies."

The Story

Ogilvie is a leading expert on biotechnology, bioorganic chemistry and genetic engineering. He developed the “Gene Machine” (1980), an automated process for the manufacture of DNA, which made it possible to build DNA sequences in a matter of hours rather than in months. He is the author of 12 patents including one for Ganciclovir, a drug used worldwide to fight infections that occur when one’s immune system is weakened. Both of these achievements were recognized in 2000 as "Milestones of Canadian Chemistry in the 20th Century" by the Canadian Society of Chemistry. 

Ogilvie also developed a general method for the chemical synthesis of large RNA molecules, demonstrated by the first total chemical synthesis of a functional Transfer RNA (tRNA) molecule, which is still the basis for RNA synthesis worldwide. In medical research, synthetic RNA is making possible the development of new drugs that were previously beyond the reach of science. These drugs will consist of RNA sequences tailor-made to attach to certain types of viruses and interfere with their ability to replicate themselves. Ganciclovir is one such drug. It kills CMV (Cytomegalovirus) a type of herpes that attacks people with weakened immune systems such as AIDs, organ transplant and cancer patients. 

Ogilvie became a faculty member in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Manitoba in 1968. He moved to McGill University in 1974 and in 1984 was appointed founding Director, Office of Biotechnology, and Canadian Pacific Professor of Biotechnology at McGill. In 1987 he moved to Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia to serve as Vice-President (Academic) and Professor of Chemistry. Ogilvie was President and Vice-Chancellor of Acadia from 1993–2003 where he led the development and implementation of the acclaimed Acadia Advantage Program, an initiative that ensured every student at Acadia had a laptop computer, which was integrated into various teaching resources.

Dr. Ogilvie has served on numerous national and international organizations, including the Atomic Energy Control Board, the National Biotechnology Advisory Committee, the National Advisory Board for Science and Technology, and the Canadian eBusiness Initiative. He has served as scientific advisor to numerous technology companies and as a consultant and expert witness for international pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies. He is a widely sought after speaker, has a number of patents, and his 150 scientific publications have received more than 5500 citations. He served a three-year term as the initial Chair of the Premier’s Council for Innovation (Nova Scotia), is a member of the Board of Genome Canada, was a member of the Expert Panel on Federal Laboratories (Treasury Board), and chairs the Scientific Advisory Board of NRC’s Institute of Marine Bioscience. He was appointed to the Senate of the government of Canada in 2009.

Dr. Ogilvie was named a Steacie Fellow in 1992, was admitted to the Order of Canada in 1991, and in 1992 received the Manning Principal Award as Canada’s outstanding contributor to innovation. He was identified as a Canadian Who Made a Difference in the 1988 Maclean’s Honour Roll, has received three honourary degrees, the Queen Elizabeth Golden Jubilee Medal, the Commemorative Medal of the 125th Anniversary of the Confederation of Canada, and appeared as a mystery guest on “Front Page Challenge” (1988). He has also received the Buck-Whitney Medal of the ACS (1983). Dr. Ogilvie was named an Honourary Colonel in the Canadian Air Force and was an inaugural inductee into the Nova Scotia Discovery Centre Science and Technology Hall of Fame in 2002. He was recently inducted (2009) as one of four inaugural inductees into the Girindus “Wall of Fame” for oligonucleotide synthesis.


Ogilvie has also written and spoken extensively on the challenges facing Canada as a nation, the role of the “knowledge” economy, postsecondary education and entrepreneurship.


Sources: Canadian Who’s Who 1993; Maclean’s, October 24, 1988; NSERC; Acadia Public Relations; Photo from Acadia U. Public Relations. Personal communication from Ogilvie.

As A Young Scientist...

As a boy Ogilvie was inspired by Werner VonBraun, the great German rocket scientist who came to the US after World War II. Ogilvie preferred chemistry over physics and mathematics courses at university and gravitated to chemistry, specifically organic chemistry synthesis. "The excitement over DNA and RNA led me to want to try to be able to chemically construct these exciting molecules to (a) better understand life at the molecular level and (b) to perhaps be able to use that knowledge to improve human health."

Career Advice

I think the opportunities for exciting careers in science grow every year. The more we understand the world around us at the molecular level, the greater the role of chemistry in helping us further unravel life's secrets and bring opportunities including better health and nutrition to all societies. Chemistry deals with molecules and thus offers great opportunity and excitement to those who pursue it and understand its foundation. As an example, the basis of the biotechnology revolution is the understanding of life at the molecular level. But it is essential to remember that we cannot solve key issues of the environment or health by reading about them - it requires pursuit of the underlying scientific knowledge so a solid foundation in science is essential to really contributing to these key areas.

The Person

November 6, 1942
Summerville, Nova Scotia
Canning, Nova Scotia
Other Interests
Golf is now Ogilvie's favorite sport, but he loves most general sports (baseball, softball, tennis, hand ball, squash). He currently enjoys fishing, especially for striped bass. Ogilvie lives in the country and works his large wooded property as a hobby. He also supports local organizations and speaks extensively on innovation and economic opportunities in the "environmental economy".
Emeritus Professor of Chemistry
K20 Consulting
  • BSc (Honours) Acadia University, 1964
  • PhD Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois 1968
  • Buck-Whitney Medal, 1983
  • Manning Principal award, 1991
  • Order of Canada, CM, 1991
  • Steacie Fellow, 1992
Robert Letsinger, graduate supervisor at Northwestern University.
Last Updated
June 22, 2015

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