Vale The Legendary Virologist Jean-Robert (JR) Bonami

JR hosting us and my wife’s family on his catamaran

Yesterday Zhengli informed me of the death on August 8th of Jean-Robert JR Bonami, her PhD supervisor, and for a brief while my mentor. No longer active in the field and within that community, I will express my condolences here in the hope that those to whom it means something will one day see them.

JR was undoubtedly one of my favourite people in the world and I envied his lifestyle, not in a jealous manner but in a fantastical way. JR was one of the last in a generation where if your brilliance shone early you were given the security of tenure and need not worry again about professional or financial security, and you retired only when you really wanted. 

When I worked with JR he was dreaming of that time when he would retire and spend every day on his beloved catamaran moored at La Grande Motte. But in total honesty I can say the time spent talking about science with JR was the most densely rich learning experience of my career.

I will forever consider JR the most brilliant scientist I ever met, and I was truly privileged that he found a way to bring me to Montpellier. Early in that year we discussed me staying for several years,  and I am in no doubt that if my wife and I had come with, or were quickly able to develop, fluent French language skills then it would have been the making of my career.

Still the year we spent in Montpellier was life-changing and the good memories, many spent with JR on his boat, have lingered much longer in my mind, and certainly my heart, than the memories of the challenges.

JR’s typical work day started at 9 and everyone in the lab joined him for a coffee in the small staff room. After half an hour we would disperse and he would go through his emails. I often imagined how several years earlier many of those emails were from a young Australian PhD student struggling in vain to purify a virus from freshwater crayfish for the first time in history. JR was always generous with his advice, always, even if he knew some had ‘long teeth’ (the French expression for those ‘hungry’ ambitious types that will use people to get what they want).

Mid-morning we would all congregate again in the staff room for morning tea, actually coffee, for another half hour, sometimes more. And often JR would call us all to the staff room for an aperitif, a small glass of wine or some type of liquor, before he headed home to his lovely wife Jocelyn (a brilliant scientist in her own right) for their two hour lunch.

From JR’s arrival back at 2 we repeated the sequence again in the afternoon, though the afternoon aperitif was much more regular.

Anybody who knows me well knows that this is a way of life that I would love and respect.

Quality of everything – work, life, relationships, etc – over quantity.

JR did not do a lot of hours in a day at this stage, but when he ‘switched on’ he was intensely focused and always provided clear, insightful advice. He never pretended to know more than he did, and I never detected a hint of ego. His love for science was very pure.

It also occurred to me early that he was no less productive then many I had seen in other workplaces who did not work efficiently either as they appeared to give the impression of being busy when I knew they were not, or those who were so swamped that I knew nobody could do the job properly to the level it should.

Sadly I was not in a secure position to fully enjoy the time in the professional setting, as I would have been if I were on a sabbatical from a permanent position for example.

When I arrived in Montpellier in 2001 from Australia JR pointed at his old freezer containing samples back to the 1970s and said “the virus you are working is in there somewhere – I have not seen it for decades”. I persevered for months without success. 

By half way through the year, after the ‘gloss’ from living in a new culture and trips to Gorges l’Adeche, Pont du Gard, Nimes, Avignon, Carcassonne, etc, had worn off, and after my parents had visited, I began to be concerned about how I might get a professional return from the year so that I could achieve my ultimate aim of becoming professionally and financially secure in Australia.

At a meeting on crayfish conservation near Nantes JR was talking with some local government employees concerned about crayfish deaths near their small villages high in the mountains of Adeche, behind the famous hermitage Syrah (Shiraz) vineyards. I would probably have never spoken with them because of the language barrier. Within a week I visited the small village of Satillieu, with my wife and her family who were then visiting, which allowed us to discover the first virus in French freshwater crayfish even though researchers had been studying the health of French crayfish for over a century.

JR expressed to me how pleased he was that I managed to get some publishable results – he felt responsible for the professional challenges I faced if I had a ‘hole’ in my publication record. I suggested that I needed 3 papers from the year just to ‘stand still’ in my career, and I suspect he understood the pressures we young scientists faced.

I convinced former colleagues at Biosecurity Australia to provide a small grant to fund me to expose Australian freshwater crayfish to white spot virus, but the enormous hassles it brought on created stress beyond what the research was worth.

I eventually managed to find just one crab infected with the virus JR wanted me to study. It was the first virus JR had found in a crustacean in the 70s, and it was like JR’s baby. He was so excited for me when he joined me at the electron microscope to confirm it, and then again when I managed to purify it.

Unfortunately I bungled the DNA extraction phase and lost it (I still do not know how). I had kept half of the purified virus but I lost it in the freezer with everything that was happening at the time, and the stress was beginning to impact upon me.

That is my greatest regret from that time, possibly of my career, that I did not do the job JR entrusted in me. I suspect JR saw a fair bit of himself in me – we were both in it for the pure love of science, and were each genuine ‘virus hunters’. That I let JR down when he entrusted me with his baby was a difficult cross to bear, and some years later I apologised for not being at my best in the latter stages of my time in Montpellier. 

In the year that we spent in Montpellier we were hosted in JR and Jocelyn’s home often, including when our parents visited, and we went with him on his boat more than anyone else. To say that we enjoyed his company does not nearly encapsulate how we felt. JR was the ultimate gracious and generous host. Towards the end of the year JR confided in me that one of the reasons he loved me being on the boat was because he felt safe swimming when I was there – he said that he did not think any of the skinny French guys could get him back on the boat if he had a heart attack!

I regularly received Christmas wishes for many years from JR, and he was my only mentor or senior colleague who maintained any contact with me after my early retirement.

For me JR is the father of crustacean virology and everybody who follows in the field stands on his shoulders, like the steel skeleton reinforcing the highest of skyscrapers – built upon and over, but ever formidable and powerfully holding up all that followed.

I will forever be proud that I worked with the great JR Bonami, but most of all I will be proud to say that we were friends. I admired him, I respected him, I envied him, and I loved him. He taught me much more than scientific skills, he showed me a happy and balanced way of living, and I will miss knowing that he is in the world somewhere in the Mediterranean on his catamaran cooking for some grateful friends and sharing wine and laughs.

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© Copyright Brett Edgerton 2021

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