Stafford accepted a position in 1954
as Reeds sole biology professor specializing in botany and only
female faculty member in the sciences. While already well known, Reeds
biology department was small and underfunded. Stafford remembers that
even then, Kleinholz had a vision for a grant-funded program that emphasized
analytical thinking, shifted the focus from information to process, and
integrated classroom teaching and vigorous research by both faculty and
students. It would become the first such undergraduate program in the
U.S. The timing was impeccable; the National Science Foundation and National
Institutes of Health had been created just a few years before; both promised
funding for exactly this kind of approach.
She and her biology colleagues Kleinholz, Laurens Ruben, Frank Gwilliam,
and Dick Siegel were much more than professors; they were partners in
the departments transformation. The four operated out of cramped
corners in Eliot Hall. Their equipment was rudimentary at best. But creativity,
commitment, and a close collegiality helped the professors lay the groundwork
for what today is one of the top undergraduate biology programs in the
Stafford and other faculty members tapped NSF grants to help equip the
growing department. She continued to earn grants and fellowships even
after she retired from teaching at Reed in 1987. Several of her grants
funded research sabbaticals, including a Guggenheim Fellowship at Harvard,
an NSF senior postdoctoral fellowship at UCLA, and work on condensed tannins
at the Oregon Graduate Center. The experiences fed her adventurous spirit,
and she savored these opportunities to meet new people, travel, and do
While most of the students in the department focused on animals, Stafford
led a small but dedicated group of botanists, many of whom went on to
careers in plant physiology, anatomy, and biochemistry. She challenged
them to do the highest-quality work and offered them the opportunity to
learnwhile being paid as research assistants.
Maryanne McClellan recalls one of her own students who preferred to do
her senior thesis under Stafford because Helen had incredibly high
expectations in the lab. She was committed to ensuring that students were
properly grounded in practical research and thinking tools, she
says. Hers was one of the most lab-intensive courses in the department.
Yet Helens students were fiercely loyal and respected the level
she raised them to.
Stafford savored the hands-on work and continued to have thesis students
until four years after she retired. Many recall her teaching style as
intense, demanding, rewarding, and
very positive. Bert Brehm, emeritus professor who became the
departments second botanist in 1962, remembers that she focused
very sharply on the issue at hand; she didnt stray into sidelights.
And David Dalton, who filled her position when she retired, says that
she gave a lot of information that was very much centered on the
literature and current understanding of the subjects.
While teaching, Stafford also actively researched. Her broad and deep
work on aromatic compounds, flavonoids, proanthocyanidins, and the particular
compounds plants use for defensive purposes and to make structural materials
consistently broke new ground. She was president of the Phytochemical
Society of North America, served as commissioner of the Committee for
Undergraduate Education in Biological Sciences, was a member of the editorial
board of Plant Physiology for nearly 30 years, and was editor of Recent
Advances in Phytochemistry. She published the definitive text, Flavonoid
Metabolism. In 1996 she earned the Charles R. Barnes Award of the American
Society of Plant Physiologists.