Sterling Professor Richards, MB&B pioneer, passes away at 83

Sterling Professor Emeritus of Molecular Biophysics & Biochemistry Frederic Richards died over the weekend of natural causes. He was 83 years old.

Richards, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and long one of the nation’s foremost researchers in the fields of protein structure and chemistry, led the integration of Yale’s biophysics and biochemistry departments into the MB&B major in 1963.

“He was a pillar in the Yale scientific community,” said fellow Sterling Professor of MB&B Thomas Steitz. “He was principally responsible for making structural biology at Yale unsurpassed by any place anywhere else.”

Richards, it could be said, was born a Yale man. Born to a New York lawyer — and Yale alumnus — in 1925, Richards would later write that his decision to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology after graduation from Phillips Exeter made him the black sheep in the Richards clan.

“My father, uncle, and earlier ancestors had all attended Yale,” he wrote in his autobiography “Whatever Happened to the Fun?” “Perhaps I could make amends within the family by joining the University as an employee.

Richards joined Yale’s Biochemistry Department in 1955, shortly after earning a Ph. D. from Harvard Medical School and completing postgraduate work in Europe. At the time, the work of many research scientists converged on the enzymatic reactions of proteins. Richards made his first seminal contribution to the field on the night of December 2, 1957, when he discovered “a model of a peptide hormone binding to its receptor to produce biological activity.”

“This discovery came as a surprise to the scientific community at that time and evoked some pleasing recognition of the work,” Richards wrote in his autobiography. “In retrospect this may have been the high point in my career in terms of excitement.”

In 1963, with the fields of biochemistry and biophysics becoming increasingly intertwined, University President Kingman Brewster ’41 asked Richards to switch departments. He would move from the medical school’s Biochemistry Department to chair a new one: Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry. Under his guidance, MB&B would become “a major, internationally recognized department,” Steitz said.

In his time as chair, Richards hired eight faculty to the department, Steitz said. Of those, seven would go on to earn membership in the National Academy of Sciences.

“Professor Richards has also been a substantial contributor to the National Good in professional activities,” Professor George Rose, director of Johns Hopkins University’s Institute for Biophysical Research, would later write in a short biography on Richards.

Richards was elected to the presidency of the Biophysical Society in 1972 — whose membership today spans some 7,000 academics — before assuming the presidency of the American Society of Biological Chemists in 1979. Until 1991, he headed the Jane Coffin Childs Memorial Fund for Medical Research, which awards postdoctoral fellowships to young scientists pursuing cancer-related research.

Throughout, Richards maintained what colleagues called an “irrepressible sense of adventure and just plain fun.” Richards himself sought to preserve such quality of life for researchers in the sciences.

“The title of this article was provided as a question,” Richards wrote in the epilogue of “Whatever Happened to the Fun?” “The answer seems to be that the ‘fun’ is still potentially here.”

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