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Paul Stumpf


Paul K. Stumpf

Professor Emeritus of Biochemistry

Molecular and Cellular Biology

UC Davis

1919 – 2007



Paul Karl Stumpf, a world leader in the field of plant biochemistry at the University of California, Davis, who helped build the campus both physically and in scientific reputation, died February 10 at the University Retirement Community in Davis. He was 87 and had been ill for some time. He was born in New York City on February 23, 1919 and received his A.B. degree, magna cum laude, in 1941 from Harvard. In 1945, Paul received his Ph.D. in biochemistry from Columbia University in New York. After 18 months at the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan as an instructor, he accepted an appointment at the University of California at Berkeley as an assistant professor of plant nutrition. After 10 years on the Berkeley campus, where he rose to the rank of professor of agricultural chemistry and chair of that department, he transferred to the Davis campus to establish a new department of Biochemistry and Biophysics in 1959. This department was warmly received and Paul served as its chair on four occasions.


Paul justifiably deserves to be designated the father of modern plant lipid biochemistry. Over 250 publications by Professor Stumpf and his co-workers spanned diverse topics ranging from the initial steps in fatty acid biosynthesis to the assembly of membrane and storage lipids, as well as the degradation of lipids. Paul’s work has received more than 7,500 citations and 20 years after his retirement, his papers are still frequently cited. He is perhaps best known for extensive characterization of the systems for fatty acid biosynthesis in plants. These studies included the identification of the many component enzymes, their subcellular localization, and the discovery of the prokaryotic nature of enzymes of fatty acid synthesis and of the chloroplast acetyl-CoA carboxylase. The discovery of acyl-ACP thioesterases led to a description of CoA track versus ACP track reactions that was a conceptual precursor to the prokaryotic and eukaryotic two-pathway hypothesis that has underpinned much of modern plant lipid research. A major early discovery was the pathway of alpha-oxidation, described initially in 1956, and in more detail in 1974. The system is now known to be involved in plant pathogen responses. Paul’s discoveries in plants preceded the identification of the pathway in animals and the later connection of Adult Refsum’s Disease to the inability of humans to metabolize phytanic acid by alpha-oxidation.


Professor Stumpf trained more than 60 students, postdocs and visiting scientists, many of whom went on to become leaders in plant biochemistry research. Throughout his career he maintained a close connection with bench work. He trained every new arrival in the lab on the use of the gas chromatographs and their radioisotope detectors, and when an instrument needed maintenance, Paul was hands-on in the repairs. He was also creatively engaged in each research project, making many suggestions for experiments, while at the same time providing freedom for students and postdocs to follow their own intuitions. Paul was interested in providing the science that formed the picture, without great concern for the minute details. He saw research as did Nobel Laureate Albert Szent-Gyorgi whose quotation was framed in Paul’s office: “Research is seeing what others have seen, but thinking what no others have thought.” Many of those who trained with Paul have fond memories of the atmosphere in the Stumpf lab. His laboratory was an excellent place to do science, and researchers enjoyed the relaxed social interactions that included trips to the Stumpf cabin near Lake Tahoe.


In addition to his fundamental research contributions, results from the Stumpf lab laid the foundation for the genetic modification of oilseeds to improve their fatty acid composition. Paul was a key early advisor and consultant for Calgene, a successful biotech company founded in Davis. Much of the early success of Calgene in transgenic modification of the fatty acid composition of canola rested on the groundbreaking characterization and purification of acyl-ACP desaturases and thioesterases that were carried out in Paul’s lab.


Professor Stumpf was a strong advocate for faculty governance at the University of California and he contributed at many levels. He served on and chaired a variety of Academic Senate committees including the Committee on Committees, both campus and systemwide Committees on Privilege and Tenure, the Academic Freedom Committee and the Budget Committee. Paul was especially interested in campus planning and served many years on the Academic Senate Campus Planning Committee and the Physical Planning Advisory Committee. With an extensive collection of photographs, he carefully documented the buildup of the campus from a student enrollment of 2,300, when he joined the campus in 1959, to over 19,000 at the time of his retirement in 1984. Paul was also the founding president of the UC Davis Emeriti Association, chair of the UC Davis Academic Senate Emeriti Committee and secretary of the Council of University Emeriti Associates.


During his career, Paul co-authored with John B. Neilands, two editions of Outlines of Enzyme Chemistry and with Eric Conn, five editions of the popular Outlines of Biochemistry. He was co-editor-in-chief with Professor Conn of the sixteen volume treatise entitled Biochemistry of Plants. Paul also authored numerous chapters in symposia volumes and served in an editorial capacity on several scientific journals. He served on the Program Advisory Committee of the Palm Oil Research Institute of Malaysia from 1982 to 1991 as well as the scientific advisory boards of Calgene and the University of Maryland Biotechnology Center. In addition, Paul served on numerous review and advisory panels for NIH, NSF and USDA.


Professor Stumpf was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1978 and the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences in 1975. He received the Stephen Hales Prize from the American Society of Plant Physiologists in 1974, served as its President in 1980, and chaired its Board of Trustees from 1986 to 1990. In 1992 he was awarded the Charles Reid Barnes Life Membership by the Society. Other awards were the Lipid Chemistry Prize from the American Oil Chemists Society, a Senior Scientist Award from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation of Germany and two Guggenheim Foundation Fellowships (1962 and 1969). In 1994 Paul was elected a Fellow of the AAAS.


After Professor Stumpf became emeritus at UC Davis, he took the helm of the Competitive Research Grants Program at USDA-CSRS from 1988 to 1991, and helped develop it into the National Research Initiative Competitive Grants Program of the USDA. In 1999, in order to support education and research in the Department he had founded, he and his wife Ruth endowed the Paul K. and Ruth R. Stumpf Professorship in Plant Biochemistry in the Section of Molecular and Cellular Biology at UC Davis.


Twenty-two years of retirement permitted the Stumpfs to enjoy numerous trips around the world. They loved to travel and participated in approximately 50 Elderhostel programs, including one to Antarctica. Golf bags were frequently packed on these trips, as Paul had what one daughter has described as a “hate-love” relationship with that sport.


Paul Stumpf is survived by his wife Ruth, five children and their spouses: Ann Shaw (Michael), Kathryn Fruh (Bill), Margaret Noonan (Mark), David Stumpf (Susan) and Richard Stumpf (Patrice), 11 grandchildren and one great grandson. He was an excellent friend and colleague of many in the University of California and will be missed.


We cherish our memory of Professor Stumpf with affection and respect.



Eric E. Conn

Michael E. Dahmus

J. Clark Lagarias