Richard Ledford, champion of NYS dairy industry, dies at 90

Richard Allison Ledford, whose work in food microbiology contributed to New York’s booming dairy and yogurt industries, died Oct. 9, 2021, in Flat Rock, North Carolina. He was 90.

Ledford, Ph.D. ’62, was professor emeritus of food science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and chaired the Department of Food Science for 17 years. His research focused on dairy and food microbiology, especially its application to cultured dairy products like yogurt, cottage cheese and sour cream.

New York state is one of the largest yogurt-producing states in the nation, and Ledford’s research and advocacy helped pave the way for that success. After earning his Ph.D. from Cornell, Ledford spent three years as director of the New York State Food Laboratory in Albany, where he helped ensure the safety of the state’s food supply by overseeing testing of product samples from food processors. He then rejoined Cornell as an assistant professor in 1964 and spent the next 32 years researching issues central to the dairy industry, including the structures of Lactococci bacteria (which produce lactic acid and are crucial in dairy product fermentation) and survival of coliform bacteria (which can grow in food products and harm human health – E. coli is a type of coliform).

“Richard provided a lot of support to the industry; he was always available to lend his expertise to solve industry problems whenever they presented,” said David Bandler ’55, M.P.S. ’71, professor emeritus in the Department of Food Science. “As a leader, he was quiet and gentle and helped people be their best, rather than pushing. He was the cement in the department that held everyone together and helped us all do better.”

Ledford was a member of the New York State Association for Food Protection, was elected its president for 1989-90 and received its highest honor, the Emmett R. Gauhn Memorial Award, in 1995. On his retirement from Cornell in 1996, he was made an honorary life member. Ledford also received the 1987 American Cultured Dairy Products Institute Research Award for excellence in research dealing with cultured dairy products.

During his second tenure as department chair, Ledford oversaw the construction of the 31,600-square-foot Food Processing and Development Laboratory, which was completed in 1988.

Ledford was also a kind and encouraging teacher and advisor, said Michael Dunn, Ph.D. ’96, who was advised by Ledford during his doctoral program and is now a professor of nutrition, dietetics and food science at Brigham Young University.

“I remember Dr. Ledford as a very kind and understanding adviser. He was patient and encouraging, and his gentle, soft-spoken manner always made me feel better and more hopeful about my potential for success,” Dunn said. “Without his kind assistance and wisdom, I would not be where I am today.”

Ledford was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, and grew up on dairy farms during the Great Depression. He served in the U.S. Army and earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from North Carolina State University. He is survived by his wife of 64 years, Martha Worley Ledford; children Roeby Ledford ’82, MBA ’86, Robert Ledford ’94, Ann Ledford Boberg ’83 and Jeanne Christman; nine grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. Ledford’s oldest son, Richard Ledford Jr. ’80, MBA ’83, preceded him in death.

Krisy Gashler is a writer for the Department of Global Development.