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Robert H. Burris

  • National Medal of Science
  • Biological Sciences

For numerous original contributions leading to an understanding of the physiology and biochemistry of the process of biological nitrogen fixation.

Pioneering research by Robert Burris unlocked the mysteries of nitrogen fixation, which, in turn, were applied to crop production to help better feed a hungry planet. Burris labored in labs for decades to discover and develop methods for which plants could more effectively use the nitrogen in the atmosphere so essential to their growth.

During that time he became the world’s leading authority on nitrogen fixation, the process in which micro-organisms convert atmospheric nitrogen into a form that can used by plants. Many of the methods still used to research nitrogen fixation were developed by Burris.

Born in South Dakota, Burris received a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1940. Save for some post-doctoral work he spent the bulk of his career at the University of Wisconsin, joining its faculty in 1946 and chairing the biochemistry department from 1958-1970. He trained more than 70 doctoral students during his tenure.

Burris’ work drew acclaim from around the globe. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1961 and received the Wolf Prize in Agriculture in 1984. He was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1979.

By Robert Warren