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Memorial celebrates life and accomplishments of Bets Rasmussen


Portland, Ore. — Friends, family, and colleagues of L.E.L. "Bets" Rasmussen, Ph.D. a long-time OGI professor best known for her research on mammalian chemocommunication, gathered for a memorial service in her honor at OGI in October.

Speakers at the service included Richard Hill, a reporter from The Oregonian who followed Dr. Rasmusssen's research for more than a decade; Tom Goodwin, professor of chemistry at Hendrix College; Nancy Scott, from the Dallas Zoo; and Jeff Schilling, Terrie Hadfield, and Julie Hollister-Smith, all from the OHSU community. Friends of Dr. Rasmussen may wish email thoughts--for possible inclusion in a book of remembrance--to: Nancy Christie.

Dr. Rasmussen died in at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle on Sunday, September 17, at the age of 67. Over the course of the last year, she had undergone a difficult struggle with myelodysplastic syndrome, a bone marrow disorder, after being diagnosed with the disease in January.

Much of Dr. Rasmussen's work focused on elephants. In a groundbreaking article in Nature, for instance, she reported her discovery of the sex pheromone that female elephants secrete in their urine to let bulls know they're ready to mate. Subsequent research revealed that bull elephants communicate with each other by using fragrances secreted from temporal glands during their yearly musth, a period of heightened sexual activity and aggression. Another study discovered how female elephants can detect chemical cues in the urine of other females to determine the phase of their reproductive, or estrous, cycle.

Most recently, in another study released in Nature, Rasmussen reported that the exact chemical blend of pheromones emitted by older bulls in musth has an impact both on the behavior of other males and on female elephants' interest in mating. Most surprising was the discovery that the mix of pheremones emitted depends on the elephant's age and stage of musth.

Scientists say that Dr. Rasmussen's studies led to a better understanding of a basic way that elephants communicate, which may prove useful in helping conservationists manage the animals in the wild and in captivity. The broader implication of Rasmussen's research, however, was to significantly expand understanding of chemocommunication among mammals. Her hope was to understand the entire route of pheremone movement from source to recipient, and scientists believe that knowledge may be useful in helping to decode a wide variety of animal behaviors.

After arriving at OGI in 1977, Rasmussen began her elephant research at the Oregon Zoo. Collaborating with her husband Rei Rasmussen, also a professor in OGI's Department of Environmental and Biomolecular Systems, Bets pioneered a technique for collecting and analyzing the breath of aquatic animals. She studied whales, dolphins and manatees to determine from their breaths whether they were unhealthy and what might be ailing them.

Rasmussen was born on November 11, 1938, in Summit, New Jersey. She received her undergraduate degree in biology from Stanford University in 1960 and her doctorate in neurochemistry at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., in 1964. She married Rei Rasmussen in 1961. In 1994, she was the recipient of a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship for her work on chemosensory signaling and elephant reproduction. She enjoyed water-skiing, snorkeling and scuba diving.

Bets is survived by her husband Rei, sons Erik and Rob, and their families.

Gifts in her memory may be directed to Riddle's Elephant and Wildlife Sanctuary, her most loved site for elephant work. Contact information for the non-profit, 501(c)(3) Sanctuary is P.O. Box 715, Greenbrier, Arkansas, 72058; the phone number is (501) 589-3291.