In Memoriam: Hanson, Richard S.

In Memoriam: Hanson, Richard S.


Richard (Dick) Hanson passed away on April 14, 2023, aged 87, in Minneapolis. He was a long-time ASM member and Professor Emeritus in the University of Minnesota Medical School.

Hanson's career spanned 36 years from his first publication in 1961 on the production of citrate in Bacillus cereus to his final research publication in 1997 on the genetic manipulation of Bacillus methanolicus for amino acid production. His early interest in college was Pharmacy, largely spurred by chats with the pharmacist in Platte, S.D., where Dick was visiting his future wife, Doreothe Glynn, at work. He attended South Dakota State University (SDSU) in Brookings, S.D., over the objections of his father. Dick was thus required to work to finance his education. He volunteered for the draft in the summer of his freshman year and was stationed as an Army radar operator near Fairbanks, Alaska, during the Korean War. His service earned him coverage by the G.I. bill, which provided for both the rest of his undergraduate and much of his graduate education. Returning to SDSU, he switched his major to Biological Sciences and the rest, as they say, is history.

Dick went to the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign (UIUC) for graduate school to potentially work with Salvador Luria and because UIUC paid slightly more than Wisconsin at the time. Luria left for MIT shortly after Dick arrived and so he chose to work with Halvor O. Halvorson on sporulation in Bacillus cereus for his Ph.D. thesis. He moved to the USDA laboratory in Peoria on a National Research Council fellowship while completing residency for his Ph.D. He was then awarded an NIH postdoctoral fellowship to work at the CNRS in Gif-Sur-Yvette outside Paris. Thus, he and his wife embarked on an adventure of a lifetime, living in and around Paris in the mid-1960s. His work there on the biochemical regulation of endospore differentiation and catabolite repression formed the basis for the early stages of his independent research laboratory supported by the National Cancer Society and NSF when he returned to the U.S. in 1964 as an Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois Medical Center in Chicago.

Dick was recruited by the Department of Bacteriology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and moved there as an assistant professor in 1966, followed by promotion to Associate Professor in 1969, and Professor in 1972. He served as Department Chair from 1972-1976. His laboratory focused on sporulation and metabolic regulation and his years there “were like a dream” where he had access to talented graduate students, postdocs, and supportive faculty mentors including National Academy members and Nobel Laureates. His research soon shifted, though, based on student interests. One wanted to work on methane-oxidizing bacteria in Lake Mendota. Dick was interested because the bacteria were thought to make exospores. And, again, the rest is history. Dick and his students studied multiple facets of the methane-oxidizing bacteria including their ecology, physiology, biochemistry, regulation, genetics, and applications. He was directly involved in many of the advances leading to our current understanding of the methanotrophs, including particulate and soluble forms of methane monooxygenase, facultative methanotrophy, anaerobic methane oxidation, amino acid production, and xenobiotic degradation.

In 1981, Dick moved to lead the Grey Freshwater Biological Institute (GFBI) at the University of Minnesota in Navarre, about 20 miles west of the UofM Twin Cities campus, and take up a Professorship in the Medical School. His research group continued to work primarily on methane oxidation and increasingly using bacteria to degrade chlorinated organic pollutants such as trichloroethylene and pentachlorophenol. Dick received patents for these processes and founded one of the first bioremediation companies, Biotrol Inc. This work was recognized in 1984 with a Lindbergh Foundation award for research on resolving conflicts between technology and the environment. He and his colleagues also developed and patented strains for amino acid production that led to very successful collaborations with international industrial partners such as Kyowa Hakko, Ajinomoto, and Norsk Hydro.

Dick was hired to lead the GFBI in part because he wanted to develop a unique academic program there. This became an influential summer short course titled “Molecular Approaches to Studies in Microbial Ecology and Microbial Metabolism and the Carbon Cycle” held annually from 1984-1992. The course trained students to apply cutting-edge molecular biology and biochemistry techniques to microbial communities. It was inspired by experiences Dick had teaching in the Woods Hole Microbial Diversity course. The course had world-leading scientists as visiting faculty teaching and working alongside the students who ranged from traditional microbiologists to civil and environmental engineers, from rising graduate students to established faculty and industrial scientists. In Dick’s words, “The course was intense. It was hard to kick the students out of the laboratory at night and on weekends so we could prepare for the next day’s experiments. They started independent research in groups while in the course once they learned the techniques and we were exhausted after a few weeks. However, it remains one of the most satisfying experiences of my lifetime.” He was also deeply proud of his classroom teaching, recognized with the Distinguished Teaching Award in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at UW-Madison in 1978 and the Dagley/Kirkwood Undergraduate Education Award in 2000 at UofM. He retired fully from the UofM in 2003. He, his wife, and son Michael founded and ran a homebrewing supply store from 1999-2002.

Dick’s most profound legacy is the people he trained, influenced, or recruited through his research, teaching, and administration. He supervised 20 Ph.D., 16 M.S., and 15 postdoctoral trainees, and hosted multiple visiting faculty and industrial scientists for sabbaticals. His contributions were recognized in 1997 when a psychrophilic methanotroph was used as the type species of a new genus with the name Methylosphaera hansonii. This was one of the proudest moments of Dick’s career and was always recalled with deep satisfaction. He was a leading member of the Microbial One Carbon (C1) Metabolism community, attending a workshop in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1973 that would lead to the meeting series. He organized the 1983 C1 meeting in Minnesota and attended it through 2002, after it was established as a Gordon Research Conference that continues today. His deepest scientific connections and friendships were in this community and there he will be deeply missed.

Dick is survived by his wife of 66 years, Doreothe, and their 3 children: Michael (Mary) Hanson of Coon Rapids, Minn., Stephen (Kris) Hanson of Las Cruces, N.M., and Thomas (Erin Mack) Hanson, of Newark, Del., and 3 grandchildren.

Obituary submitted by Thomas Hanson (University of Delaware) and Ed Topp (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada), based on materials found at and with text quoted from the Hanson and Glynn Families biographical information.