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2001
Stafford portrait
For more than half a century, Helen Stafford has taught students and conducted research in Reed’s biology department

Sitting in her office at Reed, professor emerita Helen Stafford ignores the construction crews working on the expansion of the college’s biology building. As her devoted sheltie-mix dog Brownie occasionally pesters her to go out for a walk, Stafford talks about the students, colleagues, and highlights of her 60-year career teaching, researching, and publishing in the field of plant physiology. She focuses on the years she’s dedicated to building Reed’s respected biology program. Stafford intended to be a historian or a horticulturist. But somehow, she says she was “waylaid” into a stellar career in plant physiology and biochemistry.

Her interest in plants came naturally; as a girl in Philadelphia, she’d gardened alongside her father, a chemist and businessman. Later, at Wellesley College, geneticist Harriett Creighton deepened her interest in botany, and Stafford’s lifelong study of plant physiology began.

At that time, science was not an easy career path for a woman. However, male and female mentors saw Stafford’s promise and encouraged her career. After Wellesley, she worked for a year in a tissue culture lab at Cornell, then took a two-year research position with Richard Goodwin at Connecticut College for Women. He persuaded the college to create a master’s degree for her ground-breaking thesis about the development of anatomical structures and the effect of lightin timothy grass seedlings, which was published in the American Journal of Botany. It was the first of her more than 70 publications.

Goodwin also helped Stafford gain a position with David Goddard, a biochemist at the University of Pennsylvania, who was a leader in that emerging field. She overcame the prejudice that nearly prevented her from becoming the first woman allowed to teach male botany students at the university. And she earned her Ph.D. in 1951 for her discoveries about plant enzymes.

“The enzymes of mitochondria had been established in the animal world, but not yet in plants,” she explains. “And the important co-enzymes were only just being discovered in animals. I was looking for similar particles in parts of plants that we now also call mitochondria. Specifically, using differential centrifugation, I found cytochrome oxidase and other enzymes of the Krebs cycle. After we found them, it took a long time for people to realize that plants have the same complexity and pathways that are found in animals.”

Stafford expanded on her teaching and research experience as a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Chicago. She taught there for two years in its prestigious botany department, then had the good fortune to spend an additional year doing research with the brilliant biochemist Birgit Vennesland. She furthered her research on the relationship of organic acids in the Krebs cycle of plants and published the first paper on alcohol dehydrogenase in plants.

Her solid record of research, publications, and experience teaching talented students at leading schools attracted the attention of Reed’s biology faculty, namely Lewis Kleinholz. Kleinholz recognized that the department could benefit from Stafford, whom his research colleague Goddard had recommended for her exemplary teaching and research experience and her reputation for clear, thoughtful, and innovative work.

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Reed Magazine Footer
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2001