Noted UW-Madison biochemist Robert Burris dies at 96

May 12, 2010 By Bob Mitchell

Robert H. Burris, a noted University of Wisconsin—Madison biochemist, died on Tuesday, May 11 at the age of 96.

He was one of the world’s preeminent authorities on nitrogen fixation, the process by which certain microorganisms converts nitrogen from the atmosphere into a form that can be taken up by plants. He made major advances in the understanding of the biological systems involved and developed much of the methodology used in nitrogen-fixation research.

“He trained generations of scientists in biological nitrogen fixation and plant and microbial chemistry. Many of the leading investigators in the world trace their lineage to Bob’s lab,” notes Paul Ludden, a former doctoral student of Burris’s who is now provost and vice president for academic affairs at Southern Methodist University.

“Bob was also a wonderful friend and colleague and mentor to everyone he ever met,” Ludden adds. “He guided multiple generations of scientists and scholars with his intellect, his integrity and his humanity.”

Burris’ pioneering work earned him worldwide recognition. Among his many honors, he was inducted into the National Academy of Sciences in 1961, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1975, and the American Philosophical Society in 1979. He was awarded the National Medal of Science, the highest honor the federal government accords scientists and engineers, from President Carter in 1980, and the Wolf Prize, sometimes referred to as the Nobel Prize for agriculture, from the Israeli parliament in 1985.

Burris came to Madison as a graduate student in 1936, joined the UW–Madison faculty in 1946 and chaired the biochemistry department from 1958 to 1970. He trained more than 70 doctoral students. He continued to conduct research and publish scientific papers long past his retirement in 1984.