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Sterling Brown Hendricks

  • National Medal of Science
  • Biological Sciences

For the initiation of basic research in the physical and chemical properties of soils and proteins that have profoundly influenced agricultural practices and the production of food plants.

The mid-1900s brought an exponential increase in famine, marked by soils inadequate for growing crops. Early advances in this fight against hunger can be attributed to Sterling Brown Hendricks, a Texan agriculturalist who dedicated his life to the understanding of soil chemistry.

Using X-ray diffraction, Hendricks, a student of Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling, established that clay minerals in soil have a crystalline structure. The discovery enabled scientists to better understand the chemical processes through which soils transfer nutrients to plants.

Hendricks also helped discover phytochrome, a blue-green pigment that regulates plant development by “wakening” a seed to germinate and determining whether it will make flowers.

Outside the laboratory, Hendricks was a noted mountaineer and member of the third party to scale Mount McKinley, North America’s highest peak. In 1957, he hiked several miles with a broken shoulder to get help for his group, which plunged more than 250 feet down the side of a mountain.