Pioneer Member

Robert Burris*


Steve Albrecht
Jean-Michel Ané
Dan & Wanda Arp
David Emerich
Ann Hirsch
Paul Ludden
Richard Peterson
Laura Privalle
Eric Triplett

Dan and Wanda Arp – Dr. Burris was a remarkable mentor. He had a way of bringing out the best in people. He gave those who had the opportunity to work in his lab the space to be creative and to discover. But he also gently guided us along, making sure that we remained on track. And he was a terrific editor. It may have hurt just a little to see a manuscript draft come back with so much red ink, but I quickly got over it as I realized how much better the manuscript had become! When I later started my own laboratory, I tried to pattern things after the lessons I had learned from Dr. Burris. I did, however, allow the luxury of letting our weekly group meetings start at 8:30 am!

Jean-Michel Ané  – Robert H. Burris’ pioneering work on biological nitrogen fixation earned him worldwide recognition. Among his many honors, Bob 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 from President Carder in 1980, the highest honor the federal government accords scientists and engineers, and the Wolf Prize, sometimes referred to as the Nobel Prize for agriculture, from the Israeli parliament in 1985. A Biographical Memoir written by Paul W. Ludden can be found at:

David Emerich – Professor Burris was both my undergraduate and graduate mentor. He not only taught me science and the scientific process, but also leadership, teamwork and the value of collaboration. Its notable that the most environmentally important forms of biological nitrogen fixation are symbiotic relationships – interactions that require leadership, teamwork and collaboration of the symbiotic partners. Bob’s career was exemplified by his creativity, curiosity and work ethic. I am privileged to have known him and worked with him.

Ann M. Hirsch – I was in awe of Bob Burris the first time I met him. I was a “newbie” to biological nitrogen fixation and there I was, standing next to Prof. R. H. Burris, ‘Mr. Nitrogenase’, at a scientific meeting. Bob was an incredibly important figure in Biological Nitrogen Fixation (BNF), having developed numerous important techniques, including using 15N, to follow the path of fixed N and thereby discovering that ammonia was the final product. Others will comment more deeply on his contributions to nitrogen fixation science, but I did not get to meet him until after his retirement from the University of Wisconsin. Somehow it came out, at a meeting no doubt, that I was born in the Dairy State and that was the beginning of our friendship. Over many years, we overlapped at nitrogen fixation meetings, sometimes even on the other side of the globe (a meeting in Indonesia comes to mind) and he was always kind, helpful, and knowledgeable. Once when we were talking about the upper Midwest, he told me about how his ancestors homesteaded the prairie, cutting the sod into “bricks’ to build their houses. I repeat his description of the sod houses and how they were made whenever I give a lecture on soil to undergraduate students. The people who make a difference are the ones who leave the largest gaps when they are gone.

Richard Peterson – Dr. Burris was a modest man who cast a large shadow. The many who came to know him were influenced by his knowledge, skill, kindness, and rock-solid faith in science and truth. I recollect how often, in diverse situations, people would gather around him to listen intently to his thoughts on the history of plant biochemistry and his experiences in counseling public officials. As a job-hunting product of his laboratory, I can attest to the power of his reputation and the high regard afforded him by the wider scientific community. I always tried to emulate his standards.

Laura Privalle – Bob Burris was my major professor, and he oversaw my Ph.D. dissertation work. He was much more than a boss to those of us in the lab; he was certainly a mentor and role model. His laboratory was a place for learning how to be a scientist and a collaborator, but working there also offered the opportunity for cultural exposure and personal enhancement. We learned how to think, how to evaluate results (ours and others in the lab), how to innovate, how to teach and mentor others, how to appreciate the history behind the science and the real people that pioneered the field of nitrogen fixation. Dr. Burris was one of those pioneers.

Eric Triplett – Dr. Burris was the mentor of my postdoctoral advisor, Dr. Paul W. Ludden. I was also on the the University of Wisconsin-Madison faculty for 16 years in the Agronomy Department. By that time, Dr. Burris was retired, but he still came to work every day and did experiments. Dr. Burris taught me so many lessons on how to do the best science, and I pass them on to my own graduate students to this day. All of my graduate students have heard about Dr. Burris. He was a great scientist and friend as well as one of the nicest people I have ever known. Dr. Burris and his wife were also my family’s neighbors for nine years in Shorewood Hills, Wisconsin. Dr. Burris got to know my wife and young daughters and enjoyed their visits. Dr. Burris was a wonderful neighbor, and he taught me that a great scientist can be a great human being. He had no ego and was very helpful. I try to live by his example. I am very happy to contribute to this cause of recognizing Dr. Burris as Pioneer of the American Society of Plant Biologists.