237E Biochemistry Addition
Department of Biochemistry
433 Babcock Drive
Madison, WI 53706-1544
(608) 262-3042


Robert H Burris


Emeritus Professor 1984-2010
Professor 1944-1984
Ph.D. - University of Wisconsin


I came to the University of Wisconsin (after getting a B.S. in Chemistry at South Dakota State University) in 1936. I completed the Ph.D. in Bacteriology under Perry W. Wilson in 1940, and then did a postdoc year in Physical Chemistry at Columbia University under Harold Urey. He had the only concentrated source of 15N which could be used as a tracer in studies of biological nitrogen fixation.

I spent the war years back at Wisconsin in Bacteriology working on penicillin production. Professor Tottingham, the plant biochemist, died suddenly of a heart attack in the middle of the semester in 1944, and one of K. P. Link's students and I completed teaching Tottingham's plant biochemistry course. That summer I joined Biochemistry as an assistant professor, and continued research on biological nitrogen fixation.

One of the students under Prof. Wahlin's direction in Physics built us a mass spectrometer so we could continue to use 15N in our studies of biological nitrogen fixation. Later they built another mass spectrometer that we installed in the subbasement of Biochem. In 1957 a commercial mass spectrometer appeared on the market, and we acquired one. This early period also marked the adoption of radioactive isotopes for studies in a number of the biochem labs. After I spent a summer at the Argonne Lab picking up radioisotope techniques, we established a lab course in biochem covering the use of stable and radioisotopes in research. We used 14C in studies of photosynthesis.

Immediately after World War II a number of veterans swelled the ranks of grad students. Carl Clagett and Bob MacVicar had taken their M.S. degrees with Tottingham before the war, and they returned to do their Ph.D. work in my lab. We worked primarily on biological N2 fixation, photosynthesis and respiratory enzymes. My records indicate that 71 students completed the Ph.D. and 26 a terminal M.S. degree in the lab (17 of these now are deceased). Together with the postdocs this made quite a crew. To keep busy, I chaired the department from 1958 to 1970.

After retiring in 1984, I had a number of postdocs in the lab. I concluded that I should not compete for funds with the younger and more productive scientists, so I let the funding terminate. Since then I have been furnished a nice office where I try to keep up with some of the literature and keep out of the way of productive people around Biochem. At age 88, the avoidance reaction is increasingly physically demanding, and I may even have to give up riding my bike to the campus this summer.




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