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Honours for uOttawa grad who invented famous skin cream

Every tube of skin cream with AHA, the wildly popular anti-wrinkle ingredient, exists because of a half-starved boy in wartime Taiwan who travelled to university in Ottawa and went on to fortune.

Now Ruey Yu, one of two researchers who together invented AHA skin cream, is telling the story of his journey from a childhood where he hunted rodents to eat, through 1960s Sandy Hill, on to modern-day American success.

The University of Ottawa granted Yu an honorary doctorate Tuesday in Horsham, Pennsylvania, where he lives. At the same time it launched Yu’s autobiography, Journey of a Thousand Miles: An Extraordinary Life.

Yu’s family was so poor during his childhood that his growth was stunted by malnutrition. His two sisters were sent away in childhood to be servants for rich families.

When the Second World War came, his father was sent off with other labourers to build Japanese railroads across Southeast Asia.

By age 12, the undersized Yu was carrying rocks to build a dam, and digging bunkers for the army. He begged for discarded chicken bones after the soldiers ate so that his grandmother could make broth.

Yu’s family managed to keep him in school after the war, and because of his skill in math and science he was selected to study chemical engineering. A University of Ottawa scholarship brought him to Ottawa in the early 1960s, although his wife didn’t come until two years later. Yu recalls the lovely October leaves when he arrived here — and the shock when winter came.

He recalls shopping in the ByWard Market and being pleased that a butcher let him have a pig’s head for 99 cents. The other people in the boarding house weren’t happy, but he ate well for a month.

Yu studied chemistry under Hans Baer, finishing his PhD and later doing post-doctoral work at the National Research Council. He learned to skate, became a Canadian citizen, and his wife, Ho-Chin, joined him here in 1965.

In time, he moved to Temple University Skin and Cancer Hospital, becoming an American citizen and living in Philadelphia with his wife and three children. This is where his big break occurred, as he teamed up with a physician named Eugene Van Scott to discover that a class of chemicals called alpha-hydroxy acids — AHA — were hugely useful in curing a disease called ichthyosis. In extreme forms, patients develop thick, grey skin like fish scales.

The molecules that the pair synthesized have natural origins such as grapefruit and sugar cane, said Steve Perry, the dean of science at the University of Ottawa.

“The amazing thing was that using the chemistry he had learned, he was able to tweak these molecules so that they became more biologically active.”

And the more Yu and Van Scott looked at AHA, the more uses they found — so many that they founded a company to market it, NeoStrata.

The stuff makes “age spots” fade and also treats acne.

It also peels off a layer of skin cells leaving a pink glow behind, they realized. “This led to the ‘lunchtime peel’ cosmetic craze of the mid-1990s, where Hollywood stars nipped into their dermatologists’ offices at lunch for a quick exfoliation, emerging with soft, rosy cheeks,” Yu writes.

But they hit the big time when they realize AHA reduces wrinkles. It’s a story with a lot of twists and turns, but the two skin researchers became millionaires many times over — especially after winning $40 million from Mary Kay. A jury ruled the cosmetics giant had used AHA without paying proper royalties.

Yu didn’t forget the University of Ottawa. He has given $500,000 to an endowment for scholarships there, and other donations.

Since his health wouldn’t allow a trip to Ottawa, the university put on an official convocation near Yu’s Philadelphia home, complete with its president, vice-president, dean of science and chair of the chemistry department on stage and 65 people watching.

“Out of the ordinary, and totally fitting for what this guy has done in his life,” Perry said after the ceremony.

He said Yu’s life “is the classic story of constant optimism, moving forward in the face of adversity, overcoming all odds.”

There was also “his thirst and quest for knowledge. As a young student he stood out. He was the only student who moved on from his high school” to higher education. “And he’s a very ambitious man.

“He was shaped by those early days in Taiwan. He could have gone two ways. He could have been beaten down by the oppression, or he could have done what he did, which was to remain optimistic and to think he was going to rise above that — and give back.”

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