Remembering the Legacy of Dr. William Danforth

Dr. Danforth helped build partnerships that have strengthened the field of plant sciences in Missouri and beyond

The passing of William H. “Bill” Danforth, M.D., last week at age 94 brought to the spotlight his work in academic administration, medicine and science, and outreach in the St. Louis area. His contributions also can be felt here at the University of Missouri. Dr. Danforth, chancellor emeritus of Washington University, was the founding chairman of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center (DDPSC).

Mizzou, including the Division of Plant Sciences in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources (CAFNR), and the Interdisciplinary Plant Group (IPG), has had a long partnership with the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center.

In 1998 Dr. Danforth founded the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center with the mission to “improve human condition through plant science,” according to the Center’s website, and served as its chairman through 2013. The idea for a plant science center to help feed the world germinated after a conversation Dr. Danforth had with Peter Raven, then director of the Missouri Botanical Garden, and Virginia Weldon, a former Monsanto vice president, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

“The early visions of the Danforth Plant Center were to increase nutritional quality, increase disease resistance, in addition to yield in plants/crops,” said Doug Randall, professor emeritus of biochemistry and director emeritus of the IPG. “Danforth and Raven knew that if their goal of having a world-class plant research center was to succeed, they needed the experience of land-grant agriculture research and Extension.”

Randall was MU’s research representative to the Center as the initiative got its start. Administrators from other universities including Washington University, University of Illinois, Purdue University and Iowa State University were also part of the initial “research committee,” Randall said.

Once the Center was established, the Chancellors of the five campuses were on the initial board of directors. Brady Deaton, MU’s Chancellor from 2004-2013, was instrumental in the idea of joint appointments between the institutions, Randall said, as was the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) unit housed at Mizzou.

“I worked closely with Dr. Danforth from the inception of the DDPSC, and particularly by serving on the Board throughout my period as Chancellor,” Deaton said. “Dr. Danforth commanded my and others’ respect for his kindness, his intellectual depth, integrity, and vision for solving global food needs. He firmly believed that St. Louis could play a global leadership role as a center for the agricultural and life sciences, and believed that a full partnership with regional land-grant universities was key to that role.”

Two positions were established at the Columbia-based ARS Plant Genetics Research Unit to be housed at the Danforth Center, as part of the partnership between the institutions involved in establishing the Danforth Center, said Mel Oliver, retired ARS research leader and adjunct professor of plant sciences at Mizzou. As part of Oliver’s role as the executive director of the Global Plant Council, he had a one-on-one meeting in 2010 with Dr. Danforth that he said was an “amazing display of intellect and understanding of the world of global science and astute advice.”

“He was a truly passionate advocate of the plant sciences and agriculture and what they could do to sustain the global population,” Oliver said. “I left his office not only educated and filled with the same passion, but knowing I had spent the last 30 minutes in the presence of a true gentleman of science whose vision, intellect and compassion has inspired me ever since.”

In 2014, Mizzou entered into a collaborative agreement with the Danforth Center that has led to the creation of four joint positions. Three of those positions are filled, with the 2018 additions of R. Keith Slotkin and Bing Yang joining Blake Meyers, who was the first collaborative hire in 2016. In addition, Walter Gassmann, interim director of the Bond Life Sciences Center and professor of plant sciences at Mizzou, is part of the Scientific Advisory Board for the Danforth Center.

“Plant biology is a major strength of this campus – and a major strength in St. Louis,” said Bob Sharp, professor in the Division of Plant Sciences and director of IPG. “Linking the MU plant community with the St. Louis plant community was an obvious strategy. The objective was to build a formal link between the two institutions to facilitate partnerships, collaborations, graduate student and post-doc training, and grant opportunities. The opportunities were there anyway, but to have jointly-appointed faculty linking the two institutions is key to greater collaboration. They create a bridge that everyone can cross. We’re thrilled to now have three of those individuals on board.”

“Indeed, the joint initiative has been providing a functioning bridge between two institutions, based on my experience of two years in the joint faculty position,” said Bing Yang, professor in the Division of Plant Sciences and member at the Danforth Center. “I feel very proud to be part of the Center Dr. Danforth founded years back.”

Even before the formal agreement for joint hires, several Danforth scientists have served as adjunct professors at Mizzou, and the two institutions collaborate on various grants as well, including ones from the National Science Foundation.

“I am thrilled that Dr. Danforth’s legacy lives on in so many ways, including the collaboration between our two institutions,” said CAFNR Vice Chancellor and Dean Christopher Daubert. “His vision for what plant sciences can do for this state, this country and world is more important today than ever before. We are pleased to continue partnering and building upon Dr. Danforth’s vision with our Danforth Center colleagues.”

“The partnership between Mizzou and the Danforth Center has become one of the most vital alliances we have,” said Mark McIntosh, vice chancellor for research and economic development at MU. “The world-renowned collaborative researchers hired through this partnership, who share resources and expertise at both institutions, enhance the crucial Missouri plant biology research community, benefitting not only the state, but the nation and the world.”

Dr. Danforth was tapped to provide thought leadership about the national challenge of agricultural research and education and led the effort to create the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), established in 2008. In 2010, he served as keynote for the University of Missouri Regional Life Sciences Summit, giving a most inspiring presentation, “Partnerships for Progress in Health and Economic Development” that is still available on video in University Archives and is well worth watching, Deaton said.

Prior to founding the Danforth Plant Science Center, Dr. Danforth served as chancellor of Washington University from 1971-1995, transforming it into one of the nation’s leading universities and a cornerstone institution of St. Louis.

“Dr. Danforth truly walked the walk of ‘make the world a better place’ and ‘do what you can with all your heart and brain.’ It was a privilege to know him and an honor to work with him; he was the kindest, most humble person I have ever known,” Randall said.

“I join everyone who knew Dr. Danforth in mourning the loss of a wonderful man of deep character, a thought leader, and a dedicated servant to higher education,” Deaton said. “He was deeply respected by all and pursued knowledge with a passion. Our university is indebted to him for his many contributions to many aspects of our mission.”

Read more in the feature story CAFNR wrote about this important collaboration in 2018: