Longtime Yale biochemist dies

Crothers
Photo by Yale .

Donald Crothers ’58, a biophysical chemist who served on the Yale faculty for half a century, died on Sunday, March 16 at the Smilow Cancer Hospital in New Haven. He was 77.

Crothers first stepped onto Yale’s campus as an undergraduate in 1954; by the end of his career, he had risen to prominence in his field and at Yale, serving 12 cumulative years as the chair of the chemistry department. Colleagues, friends, and family remembered him as a pioneering scientist, a selfless father and husband and an integral part of the University’s leadership.

“He was absolutely unique and amazing,” said Leena Kareoja-Crothers, his wife of 54 years. “I just can’t think that a human being could be any better.”

Crothers’ studied the structure and mechanisms of nucleic acids, the building blocks of molecules that encode genetic information. He also developed experimental methods to discover how physical chemistry could help explain these complex structures.

In 1979, Crothers co-authored “Physical Chemistry: With Applications to the Life Sciences,” which was the foundational text on the subject according to Yale chemistry professor Gary Brudvig. Two years later, he won the Emily M Gray Award from the Biophysical Society for “significant contributions to education through creating rigorous, groundbreaking texts and enriching generations of biophysicists.”

For his contributions to the field, he was inducted into both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1986 and the National Academy of Sciences in 1987.

“He was a perfectly marvelous colleague,” said Peter Moore, a Yale chemistry professor since 1969. “He had extraordinarily good judgment, not just from a scientific point of view, but from a human and institutional point of view. Whenever controversies or difficulties arose, Don could absolutely be relied on to have an extremely good idea of what should be done next.”

Crothers served as chair of the Yale Chemistry Department for four 3-year terms, first from 1975-1981 and later between 1994-2000. Moore said Crothers’ leadership helped shape the department into what it is today, citing critical administrative decisions and recruitments across an important period in the department’s development.

Brudvig said Crothers was a central figure in integrating biology and physical chemistry at Yale. Over his tenure, Crothers recruited faculty exploring biochemistry, including Brudvig himself.

“No one worked harder,” said Michael McBride, Yale professor of chemistry. “Everyone liked and respected him,”

According to Kareoja-Crothers, his family remembers him as a selfless father and husband who always made time for his children despite a busy schedule, and who was always modest about his achievements. Crothers enthusiastically adopted opera and classical music to share in the passions of his wife, a professional musician, and even taught himself Finnish to be able to talk to her parents.

“I love to talk about him, because everything I remember about him was so good,” Kareoja-Crothers said. “He was the kind of man who was not hard to please, because he always pleased others. I want the world to know what we are missing, and what we had in this man.”

Crothers was born in Fatehgarh, India on Jan. 28, 1937. He graduated summa cum laude in 1958 from Yale with a degree in chemistry, and continued to Cambridge to earn a B.A. in 1960. He received his PhD in Chemistry from the University of California, San Diego in 1963, and afterward became a postdoctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute in Germany. He was hired as an associate professor at Yale in 1968, and rose to full professorship in 1971. At the time of his death, Crothers was a Sterling Professor of Chemistry.

Crothers is survived by his wife and two children, Nina and Kristina, his grandchildren Sofia, Freya, Evan and Alena, and his sisters Shirley and Susan.

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