|For more than half a century,
Helen Stafford has taught students and conducted research in
Reeds biology department
Sitting in her office at Reed, professor
emerita Helen Stafford ignores the construction crews working on the expansion
of the colleges 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 shes dedicated to building Reeds 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, shed
gardened alongside her father, a chemist and businessman. Later, at Wellesley
College, geneticist Harriett Creighton deepened her interest in botany,
and Staffords 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 Staffords 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
masters 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 Reeds 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.