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Obituary: Paul K. Stumpf, Biochemist

By Andy Fell on February 20, 2007 in Science & Technology

Paul Karl Stumpf, a professor emeritus of molecular and cellular biology at the University of California, Davis, who helped build the campus both physically and in scientific reputation, died Feb. 10 at the University Retirement Community in Davis after a long illness. He was 87.

"Paul Stumpf was truly among the elite professors at UC Davis. National Academy member, president of his international society, co-author of the most popular biochemistry text of the 20th century -- he did it all. He made UC Davis a better institution and all of us who knew him better people," said UC Davis Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef.

Stumpf was born on February 23, 1919, in New York City. He received his bachelor's degree in biochemistry, magna cum laude, from Harvard University in 1941 and a doctorate in biochemistry from Columbia University in 1945. In 1948, he joined UC Berkeley as an assistant professor in the Division of Plant Nutrition, then the Department of Plant Biochemistry -- later renamed Agricultural Biochemistry -- finally becoming professor and chair of that department at Berkeley.

In 1958, Stumpf and another Berkeley colleague, Professor Eric Conn, moved to Davis to establish the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics. Stumpf served as chair of the department four times during his career at UC Davis. He retired in 1984, going on to help found the UC Davis emeriti association and serving as its founding president.

Stumpf pioneered the study of the biochemistry of lipids (fats and oils) in plants, training many students who went on to become leaders in the field and publishing more than 250 research papers over four decades. Among his achievements was the discovery in plants of the alpha-oxidation pathway for degrading fatty acids. Genetic defects in the same pathway in animals are linked to rare hereditary diseases.

He was the co-author of several major textbooks, including two editions of "Outlines of Enzyme Chemistry," with John B. Neilands; five editions of "Outlines of Biochemistry," with Conn; and he co-edited, with Conn, a 16-volume treatise, "Biochemistry of Plants."

In 1999, Stumpf and his wife, Ruth, established an endowed chair in the College of Biological Sciences: the Paul K. and Ruth R. Stumpf Professorship in Plant Biochemistry. Recipients hold the chair for five to seven years. The current recipient is Judy Callis, professor of molecular and cellular biology.

He served on numerous review boards for federal agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. From 1988 to 1991 he was Chief Scientist of the USDA's Competitive Research Grants Program and its successor, the National Research Initiative Competitive Grants Program. He served on scientific advisory boards for Calgene Inc., the Palm Oil Research Institute of Malaysia, and the University of Maryland Biotechnology Centers.

Stumpf served on numerous campus committees during his career at UC Davis, but was perhaps proudest of his service on the campus planning committee under Chancellor Emil Mrak, Conn said. The campus was going through a period of explosive growth, and the planning committee played a key role in directing that growth, planning and locating a series of new buildings.

Among many honors and awards, Stumpf was a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences. He received a Senior Scientist Award from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, Germany, and was twice selected as a Guggenheim Foundation Fellow. In 1992 he received the Charles Reid Barnes Life Membership Award from the American Society of Plant Physiologists and, in 1994, he was elected as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

According to his daughter, Margaret Noonan, Stumpf's hobbies included a "love/hate relationship" with golf, a love of gardening that typically led him to plant too many tomatoes and cucumbers, and travel.

Stumpf is survived by his wife, Ruth, and five children: Ann Shaw and her husband Mike of Irvine; Kathryn Fruh and her husband Bill of Colorado Springs, Colo.; Margaret Noonan and her husband Mark of Granite Bay; David and his wife Susan of Bowie, Ariz.; Richard and his wife Patrice of Berkeley; eleven grandchildren and one great-grandson.

Stumpf had insisted that no memorial services be held. The family requests that memorial gifts in his name be directed to the charity of the donor's choice.

Media contact(s)

Andy Fell, Research news (emphasis: biological and physical sciences, and engineering), 530-752-4533,