School of Molecular and Cellular Biology Remembers Dr. Ralph Wolfe

Ralph Wolfe

Ralph S. Wolfe, July 18, 1921- March 26, 2019

Ralph S. Wolfe died on March 26, 2019 at the age of 97. Ralph received his BA in Biology from Bridgewater College in Virginia in 1942 and earned his PhD in Microbiology in 1953 from the University of Pennsylvania. He joined the Department of Microbiology at Illinois as an instructor that year. He was promoted to assistant professor in 1955, to associate professor in 1957, and to full professor in 1961. He became Professor Emeritus in 1991.

Dr. Wolfe received numerous awards during his career, including the Selman Waksman Award from the National Academy of Sciences, as well as the Abbott Lifetime Achievement Award, the Procter and Gamble Award in Environmental Microbiology, and the Carski Distinguished Teaching Award from the American Society for Microbiology. In 1981, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and to the Center for Advanced Study at the University of Illinois.

Ralph had keen interest in the metabolic diversity of microbes, and for over 30 years he taught a course for advanced undergraduates and graduate students on the isolation and characterization of diverse microbes from natural habitats. These interests led him to be one of the first instructors and ultimately Director of the Microbial Diversity Course at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole.

His major research interests concerned anaerobic microbes and he developed methods and designed tools that enabled research on these organisms. Research conducted in his laboratory elucidated the biochemistry of methanogenesis, the metabolic process by which a unique group of anaerobes make methane. These studies led to the discovery of new organisms and unique metabolic pathways that involve six novel coenzymes and unprecedented biochemistry. In collaboration with Carl Woese, the methanogens were the first organisms to be recognized as belonging to a new third domain of life, the Archaea. During fifty years of active research, Ralph mentored 28 graduate students and 28 postdoctoral students, whose work is featured in over 200 scientific publications. His laboratory also trained numerous undergraduate students and hosted scientists from all over the world.

Ralph was known for the breadth and depth of his knowledge regarding microbes and, at the same time, for his humility, especially surprising for one who achieved so much. His interest in microbes never waned. Indeed, Ralph continued nearly daily visits to his office-lab until December 2018 to check up on his “hobby” experiments.

Ralph Wolfe is survived by his wife of 68 years, Gretka, and their three children, Daniel (Lynette) Wolfe of Coventry, R.I., Jon (Karen) Wolfe of Greentown, Ind., and Suzanne (James) May of Summerfield, Ohio; four grandchildren; and one great-grandson.

Ralph Wolfe