He was ‘larger than life’: CSU community mourns loss of Ian Orme

Ian Michael Orme, 65, passed away peacefully in his sleep June 19, while at his summer home in upstate New York. Orme, a Colorado State University Distinguished Professor, was one of the world’s leading experts in tuberculosis and immunology. Orme shaped the scientific understanding of tuberculosis in myriad ways, including pioneering the mouse and guinea pig models used around the world for tuberculosis research.

Carol Blair, CSU professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Pathology, said Orme had already emerged as a leader in tuberculosis research when he was hired as a faculty member by the University in 1986, after he completed his postdoctoral work at the Trudeau Institute in New York.

page from lab manual created by Ian Orme
Orme’s sense of humor found its way into his work. PIctured here, a page from a lab manual he created.

Orme attended Paddington College in London, and completed his bachelor’s degree and doctorate at the University of London.

“Ian took over responsibility for teaching undergraduate immunology courses in the classroom and in the laboratory,” said Blair, who was a close friend of Orme’s. Because of his unique sense of humor, as well as his comprehensive knowledge of immunology, he really engaged CSU students and was a favorite instructor, she added.

Training the best, and brightest

Over his more than three decades at CSU, Orme trained a number of young researchers who have now established their own tuberculosis programs around the world. One young researcher that he took under his wing was a veterinary pathologist named Tony Frank.

“Ian was more than a friend and colleague,” said Frank, now president of CSU and chancellor of the CSU System. “We traveled the world together, and he really made the science part of my career. He was a giant in spirit and in the world of global health, and I miss him.”

Diane Ordway, an associate professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Pathology, said Orme’s passion for research drew her into “the wonder of all we don’t truly understand of the immune response.”

She took Orme’s immunology course at CSU, and went on to receive a full scholarship to pursue her doctorate at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in the United Kingdom.

After working in multiple countries for 15 years with patients who had tuberculosis and HIV, she returned to CSU. Ordway now runs her own laboratory in the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

“I’m indebted for all that Ian has bestowed to me intellectually,” she said. “Ian Orme’s spirit and passion for immunology lives on through all the individuals” that he touched.

Highest honors at CSU

Orme became a full professor in 1995, and in 2009 CSU honored him with its highest award, making him a University Distinguished Professor for his excellence in research.

Gregg Dean, a veterinarian, professor and head of the Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Pathology, was a young graduate student at CSU when he first met Orme in the late 1980s. It was an exciting time to be studying immunology, when scientists discovered “the beautiful means used by the immune system to recognize virus-infected cells,” he said.

Orme delighted in scientific debate and particularly enjoyed challenging the dogma and paradigms of his field, noted Dean, who went from being Orme’s student to eventually serving as his supervisor.

“Ian delighted in challenging those in administrative roles and was most happy when he was stirring the pot,” said Dean. “His approach was not necessarily kind and for that, he was not apologetic. His goal was to stimulate thought and action. Those that accepted Ian’s challenge were rewarded with interesting debate and camaraderie. Ian leaves a legacy of students and trainees who he inspired to be curious and think critically.”

Patrick Brennan, a University Distinguished Professor who studied tuberculosis and leprosy in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Pathology, was a friend and colleague of Orme’s over the last 32 years. When Orme arrived at CSU, the two researchers formally established the Mycobacterial Research Labs, a world-renowned group that now includes 20 scientists’ laboratories.

Brennan described Orme as “original” in his scientific pursuits and achievements, his mental quickness, and his writing. He also had “that English sense of humor and irreverence that only the Irish and the English themselves can fully appreciate,” said Brennan.

Some of Orme’s most notable accomplishments include receiving the Roussel Prize, an international research award, in 1994, and the Charles C. Shepard science award from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 1999. He was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology in 2002, and in 2014 a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Orme has more than 300 publications to his name and authored more than 30 scientific chapters. He proposed nearly 300 grants during his career, raising in excess of $100 million in research funding.

‘An independent thinker with a beautiful mind’

Mary Jackson, a professor and director of the Mycobacteria Research Laboratories​ at CSU, said that Orme was like no one else she had met before: an independent thinker with a beautiful mind, and a larger-than-life figure.

She first met him when she joined the University as a postdoctoral fellow in 1999.

“I was intrigued by how much people in his group loved him, the many stories of Ian’s acts of generosity, the opportunities that were given to them and that they felt would not have been possible anywhere else,” she said.

The tuberculosis research field has lost a great immunologist, Jackson added.

Jenny Harding, Orme’s longtime research coordinator, worked with him for nearly 24 years. She remembers the first impression she had of Orme during a job interview.

“I walked in and Ian was quite gruff,” she said. But he was like a big bear on the outside, with a kind heart and a generous soul.

He offered her the job on the spot, and remained her supervisor until the day of his transitional retirement from CSU, on May 12, 2017.

Harding said many people described Orme as a visionary. “He could see the whole picture,” she said. “He didn’t get caught up in the details.”

Stargazing and soccer

Harding and Orme bonded over their mutual love of stargazing.

“He was very much into astronomy,” she said. “He had different telescopes, and we would go to his house when there was a celestial event that was worth seeing. He had a book of stars and would mark off the ones he would see.”

Soccer – or football, as it is known in his native United Kingdom — was also a very important part of Orme’s life. Born Aug. 9, 1952, Orme was adopted as an infant by a working-class couple, and became an athlete in his school years. When he moved to Fort Collins, he launched a soccer club, and, subsequently served as a coach.

Later in life, Orme connected with his biological family and discovered that his affinity for sports came from his birth mother. He has traveled back to the UK to see the family every year since finding them.

Harding said she truly believes Orme left behind no unfinished business, other than enjoying retirement and his summer cabin.

He was the type of person who told you if he appreciated you, she said. He kept a paper calendar and, each year, he would meticulously transfer all of the birthdays, all of the anniversaries and other important dates.

“He would always have a big circle around Administrative Assistant’s Day,” said Harding, with a smile.

He is survived by his wife of 36 years, the former Eileen Aquavella, and two sons, Joseph Allen Michael Orme and Robert James Steven Orme.

A celebration of life will be held this fall in Fort Collins. In lieu of flowers, the family requests considering making a donation to the CSU College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. Please make donations payable to “CSU Foundation” and note “CVMBS Memorial Fund-Dr. Ian Orme” in the memo line, or donate online.

How we’ll remember Ian

Ian gave me the opportunity of a lifetime to come and work at CSU, for which I will always be grateful.

  • Anne Lenaerts, professor, Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Pathology

I lost a friend, and CSU and the Mycobacteria Research Laboratories lost a brilliant mind.

  • Delphi Chatterjee, professor, Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Pathology

I was very fond of him. He was a wonderful scientist, and a wonderful colleague. He was a great teacher, and he was really interested in students, and the kids loved him. He was the whole package.

  • Bernie Rollin, University Distinguished Professor and professor of Philosophy, Animal Sciences and Biomedical Sciences

He was a special friend. It’s another sad reminder of the fragility of life. We have lost a terrific scholar and a great man.

  • Wayne McIlwraith, University Distinguished Professor and Barbara Cox Anthony University Chair in Orthopaedics, College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

I will remember his intense love of family – especially his beloved wife. His pride for his sons and anxiety for what awaits them were always palpable. His collaboration and affection for Tony Frank was a source of special joy for Ian. His loyalty for, and pride in, his team and those who were his students. His desperate efforts, and desire, to end the curse of TB before leaving his lab and finding a world kinder towards autistic students. His distrust of most in authority and his lack of vindictiveness toward those who hurt him. Ian was a man complicated by pugnacity matched by warm gentleness, wit matched by intellect, and irascibility by good nature.

  • Ajay Menon, dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences and director, Colorado Agricultural Experiment Stations. Menon and McIlwraith attended a conference in the UK with Orme the week before his death.