Professor Emeritus Rod Clayton, expert in photosynthesis, dies at 89

Roderick K. Clayton
Clayton in 1968.

Roderick K. Clayton, the Liberty Hyde Bailey Professor Emeritus in the Department of Plant Biology, died Oct. 23. He was 89.

Clayton, who joined the faculty in 1966 as a full professor with a joint appointment in the Section of Plant Biology (part of the former Division of Biological Sciences) and in applied physics, was an expert in photosynthesis.

His research at Cornell focused on photosynthetic bacteria, specifically the use of spectroscopy to probe photochemical reactions and electron transport. In 1968, along with Dan Reed, Clayton was the first to isolate a functional photosynthetic reaction center. This work ultimately became the foundation for the 1988 Nobel Prize in chemistry that went to Hartmut Michel, Johann Deisenhofer and Robert Huber for solving the atomic structure of that same reaction center complex.

The author or editor of a half dozen books and more than 100 research articles, Clayton was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1975 and to the National Academy of Sciences in 1977. In 1982, he was awarded the Prize in Biological Physics from the American Physical Society (jointly with George Feher).

He worked closely with his wife, B.J., who was a technician in his lab until her death in 1981. Clayton regularly taught two classes, one on photosynthesis and one on vision, until his retirement in 1984.

"For the many postdocs and visiting scientists that passed through his lab, Rod provided a rich environment for discovery, for thinking outside the box, for designing instruments to fit the experiment rather than the other way around, and for having fun doing good science," said Tom Owens, an associate professor of plant biology who was Clayton's last graduate student.

Owens said Clayton described his own teaching style as a "didactic steamroller," someone who was far more interested in and enthusiastic about the material he was describing than most of his students. He was also famously known for having told his young son Rick that his favorite word was "work," and often pointed out that the word "photosynthesis" could be rearranged to spell "snot hypothesis."

In a career perspectives piece published in the journal Photosynthesis Research in 1988, Clayton said he began experimenting at the age of 9, when he made a butterfly net and cyanide killing jar.

"I had the nature essential to a scientist; the unquestioning passion to explore. I didn't do science to help humankind, or for any other external reason. I did it because there was no other way," Clayton wrote.

Stacey Shackford is a staff writer in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

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