Professor Nathan Edward Tolbert
Professor Nathan Edward Tolbert ("Ed" to his family and friends) was born May 19, 1919, on a farm outside Twin Falls, Idaho. His interest and love for plant biochemistry stemmed in great part from this background. Ed went to a small country school in Twin Falls County, Idaho, and graduated from Twin Falls High School in a class of 200 students. His first two college years were spent at Idaho State University in Pocatello, but Ed then completed his undergraduate degree in Chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley. Throughout his undergraduate years, he returned each summer to the Idaho farm to help his father. After graduation from Berkeley, Ed took a job as a research technician in the Enology Department at the University of California, Davis. Ed enlisted in the US Army Air Force in 1943, and became an officer. He came out of the war with a very clear purpose - to obtain his Ph.D. in Biochemistry. He was accepted at what was then considered the premier school for biochemistry, the University of Wisconsin, Madison. At Wisconsin, his work with Professor Burris, who was to become one of his long term mentors, stimulated his interest in photosynthesis. After completing his photosynthesis work in Professor Melvin Calvin's laboratory at UC-Berkeley, Ed took an administrative job at Atomic Energy Commission headquarters in Washington, DC, but after only two years, he elected to go back to research at Oak Ridge National Laboratories in Tennessee. In 1958, Ed was recruited to MSU by Dr. R. Gaurth Hansen and joined the newly established Department of Biochemistry in the College of Agriculture. Drs. Tolbert and Willis Wood designed the MSU Biochemistry Building which was completed in 1964.
Scientifically, Ed thought big thoughts...the air we breathe, the food we eat, CO2 and O2 production and balance. His research interests included the key enzyme in plant metabolism, Rubisco, plant glycolate metabolism, and peroxisomal metabolism in plants and animals. He took great pride in the students and postdoctoral fellows he trained. He published more than 270 papers and, in 1984, was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.
In May 1997, Ed published a prefatory chapter for Annual Review of Plant Physiology entitled, "The C-2 Oxidative Photosynthetic Carbon Cycle." At the end of the chapter, Ed dealt with the topic of himself only briefly: "This research occurred over a long period of time that was robbed from my family. I am most grateful to them for tolerating my single-minded devotion to it, which remains my only work and hobby. In the first draft of this chapter, I tried to mention names and results of all graduate students, postdocs, and visitors, who did the work. The review was far too long. For each of these associates our paths ran together for a valuable time, and I am forever grateful."
Ed Tolbert passed away on Sunday, December 13, 1998. On the previous Friday, he had been in his MSU office, still working. The Nathan Edward Tolbert Endowed Lecture is supported by his many friends and colleagues as a tribute to this outstanding scientist.