MGCSC banner image

Earl B. Patterson (1923-1999)

Earl B. Patterson passed away on Saturday May 1, 1999. He was 75 years old. He is survived by his children Mark and Anne. His wife, Betty, subsequently passed away on August 1, 1999.

His name is synonymous with the Maize Genetics Cooperation Stock Center whose current thriving status is attributable, in large measure, to his unstinting effort in its behalf. His deep imprint also remains with the annual Maize Genetics Conference, which he organized and presided over through the 60s, 70s and early 80s.

Earl Patterson was born on a farm in southeastern Nebraska near the town of Reynolds, on July 21, 1923, the youngest of nine unusually gifted children in a closely-knit family of four girls and five boys. Earl attended the University of Nebraska where, after serving three years in the U.S. armed services during WWII, he received his B.S. degree in technical science, in 1947, and graduated first in his class. Dr. Frank Keim, long-time head of the Department of Agronomy at the University of Nebraska, and a genetics teacher who was familiar with Earl's interest in the subject, and with his excellent qualifications, encouraged him to pursue advanced studies with Dr. E. G. Anderson, himself of Nebraska origin, at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Upon Dr. Keim's recommendation, Earl's application was accepted and his graduate years were spent in the Biology Division at Cal Tech with Dr. Anderson as his mentor. He received his Ph.D. degree in genetics at that institution in 1952, and stayed at Cal Tech for another year as a postdoctorate fellow.

In 1953 Earl accepted a position in the Departments of Botany and Agronomy at the University of Illinois in Urbana, where he was responsible for the Maize Genetics Cooperation Stock Center which had just been moved from Cornell University to Urbana. Two years later, in 1955, he became project leader of that program in the Department of Agronomy. Earlier maintenance of the maize genetic stocks at Cornell led to selection of strains that were adapted to the short growing season at Ithaca but only poorly suited to culture in the Corn Belt and most other corn growing regions in this country and elsewhere. As a result, Earl Patterson's first task in his new position at Illinois was to commence the conversion of these many genetic stocks to inbred and hybrid backgrounds that were better adapted to most corn growing regions. In 1966 Bob Lambert assumed responsibility for Stock Center activities and served for 16 years in that capacity until 1983 when Gil Fletcher was chosen to succeed him. When the position again became vacant in 1986, Larry Schrader, then Head of the Agronomy Department at Illinois, persuaded Earl to resume management of the Stock Center. It was to the great benefit of all maize researchers that Earl returned to that position at a time when future support and direction of the center were uncertain.

As for "distribution" of seed stocks, Earl always gave that procedure very special attention. On each request for seed, he brought to bear his encyclopedic knowledge of maize genetics lore. A request for seeds often resulted in the shipment of more packets than requested because of Earl's uncanny ability to anticipate needs and problems associated with growing and handling the items requested. All manner of useful suggestions were likely to be found in the letters that accompany the packets of seeds requested. There is no doubt that a collection of letters that Earl has sent in response to seed requests over the years would itself be a valuable resource for maize geneticists.

While the Maize Genetics Cooperation Stock Center is today well supported and a thriving organization, it was not always so. In its earlier years at Illinois, funds for its operation were uncertain and often meager. Moreover, the Stock Center, over a period of years, did not enjoy a very high priority among programs in the Department of Agronomy. Its current high-priority status in the department (which subsequently became the Department of Crop Sciences) is due to Larry Schrader, who recognized its importance not only for maize geneticists and breeders, but for agriculture in general, and to Gary Heichel, the present Head of the Department of Crop Sciences, who recognizing the significance of this program within and beyond Illinois borders, has made a strong commitment to its support. Financial support of the Stock Center is also now secure. With an improved internal status for the Stock Center in recent years has come increased support from the Agricultural Research Service of the United States Department of Agriculture, and in 1992 this agency assumed responsibility for operations and funding of the program. To Earl, whose labors, and sometime frustrations, have been so closely associated with the development of the Stock Center, the strong position that it has recently achieved was a source of great satisfaction and pride.

In 1958 John Laughnan, Ed Coe, Gerry Neuffer, and Earl Patterson talked about the possibility that there might be an annual informal get-together of maize geneticists and their graduate students. The first meeting was in January 1959, and took place at Allerton Park, a part of a farm facility owned by the University of Illinois and located just outside of Monticello, Illinois. There were about twelve participants at that first meeting, so few that it could be held in the quite small Oak Room in Allerton Park House. These maize meetings as they came to be called were delightfully informal and grew in numbers of participants over the years. They were presided over by Earl. He made all the arrangements for use of the facility and dates of the meetings each year. He sent out notices of meetings to potential participants and arranged for ground transportation to Allerton House. There was no prearranged program of speakers; participants would arrive on Friday evening and at that time or early the next morning Earl would talk with people interested in sharing their research experiences and in that way developed a program for the get-together. At first, there was no need for a microphone, even for the most soft-spoken individuals, but as the meetings grew in size it necessarily moved to amplification. Earl introduced the speakers, adjusted the microphone, operated the overhead, arranged for the right kind of soft chalk and erased the blackboard, all with a special finesse that earned for him the position of permanent chair of all sessions. In addition to all these things Earl presided over the gene mapping sessions usually held on Saturday evenings. As the meetings grew in size, it was recognized that some modest level of organization was needed and Earl's suggestion that a steering committee for the annual meetings be established was approved by the maize group. Today this committee continues to serve an important function in the Maize Genetics community. Additionally, the Allerton maize meetings served as a model for the later establishment of similar meetings by Drosophila, Neurospora, yeast and other researchers, and for the Illinois Corn Breeders School that is sponsored each year by the Department of Crop Sciences at the University of Illinois.

After 25 years, the maize meetings grew to such a size that Allerton House could no longer accommodate them and so, regretfully, the maize genetics community was obliged to move the meetings from this treasured site. This past March the 41st annual meeting of maize geneticists, now called the Maize Genetics Conference, was held at the Grand Geneva Convention Center in Lake Geneva, WI, with over 400 teachers and researchers in attendance. Younger members of the maize genetics group are probably not acquainted with Earl Patterson nor aware of the reverence in which the Allerton meetings are still held by their predecessors. However, they should know that it was Earl who established the original format for these meetings and successfully propagated the informal atmosphere that is still recognizable in the present-day meetings, in spite of their size.