In Memoriam: Irgens, Roar

In Memoriam: Irgens, Roar


Roar (Andreas) Leif Irgens, Ph.D. passed away on September 18, 2023. Dr. Irgens was Professor Emeritus in the Biology Department at Missouri State University (MSU) and a long-time member of the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) and the Missouri Branch of ASM. He was well known as an educator and mentor to many students (both graduate and undergraduate) who went on to careers in microbiology, immunology, and medicine. 

Roar had very high expectations of his students, yet respected different learning styles and was happy to adjust his own approaches to achieve ultimate learning goals. He was a master at crafting laboratory exercises to complement innovative classroom teaching. His dedication endeared him to students and led to many mentoring relationships. These relationships often extended beyond the classroom, as he and his wife Barbara welcomed students into their home. Their hospitality was unmatched.

Dr. Irgens was also an avid researcher, focusing primarily on purple-sulfur bacteria, hydrogen-producing bacteria, and psychrophilic-gas vacuolated bacteria that he isolated from sea ice in Antarctica. While on sabbatical in Gottingen, Germany in 1972-1973, he isolated a novel anaerobic bacterial strain; Meniscus glaucopis.

Roar was recognized locally and nationally for his teaching and service contributions. He was a strong supporter of ASM, both nationally and within the Missouri Branch. In 1991, he was the recipient of the ASM Carski Award for Undergraduate Education, an honor that he earned based on his twenty-five years of educating and mentoring students in microbiological sciences at MSU. That same year he received MSU’s Burlington Northern Foundation Faculty Achievement Award for Teaching Excellence, and in 2003 was inducted into the MSU “Wall of Fame.” In memory of his teaching service, his family has created a scholarship in his name at MSU (donations may be made to the “Roar and Barbara Irgens Scholarship,” payable to Missouri State University Foundation, 300 S. Jefferson Ave, Suite 505, Springfield, MO 65806).

Born in Strinda, Norway, on the outskirts of Trondheim, Roar was the fifth of six children and the first-born son to merchant marine first-mate Roar Irgens and professional embroiderer and amateur photographer Winnie Elida Augdahl. Due to Roar Sr.’s lengthy tours, Roar first met his father at age two, and Roar Sr. died when Roar was five. At an early age Roar was interested in music and running. As a child he studied piano and sang. When he was eight, he sang a solo in the 1939 annual Trondheim Festival. In high school (gymnas) he placed in national running competitions. During World War II, a neighbor who worked at the banana ripening factory brought bananas to Roar in exchange for listening to him play piano. He had been accepted into the Nidaros Cathedral Boys Choir just before World War II, but the director was wanted by the Germans and had to flee Norway. Because even Norwegian children were forbidden to have gatherings, the choir was disbanded during the war.

After graduating from gymnas, Roar taught middle school math and science for one year before applying for a U.S. student visa to study piano at Northwestern University. Instead of a student visa, he was issued an immigrant visa. He arrived in New York in December 1950 and took a train to stay with his aunt in Chicago. The shipping trunk he used for this trans-Atlantic trip is in the Vesterheim Museum in Decorah, IA. The Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle, WA also has an exhibit of Roar’s immigration experience. In 1952, he volunteered for the draft and served for two years in the U.S. Army. During his service, he sailed through the Panama Canal, was stationed primarily in France, and was a member of their track team. He became a U.S. citizen on July 13, 1954, at which time he entered the University of Illinois on the GI Bill and earned his BS in Math in 1957. Although he continued to play piano for the rest of his life, he determined while at Northwestern University that his skills were insufficient to become a career pianist. Toward the end of his program he took a microbiology course and decided to earn his doctorate in microbiology. The summer between undergraduate and graduate school he worked at Boeing in Seattle. Initially intending to be in Seattle only for the summer, this extended to a year when he met Barbara Southwell on a church camping trip. The day after the trip he wrote to his mother that he had met the girl he would marry. They were engaged six weeks later, and then married on the anniversary of that fateful camping trip.

After their marriage in 1958, Roar and Barbara moved to Champaign-Urbana, IL, where Roar completed his doctorate in Microbiology at the University of Illinois in 1963. During these years their two children, Heidi and Leif, were born. Roar’s first job after graduate school was with the State of Minnesota Department of Health, where he oversaw the installation of the Pasveer sewage system in Glenwood, MN, the first Pasveer system installed in the U.S. The Pope County Tribune published an article about the installation on June 10, 1965 headlined, “Microbiologist Started Out to be Concert Pianist.” He stayed just over one year to train the staff, then accepted the professorship at Missouri State University for the fall of 1966. Upon retiring in 1991, Roar and Barbara moved to Washington State near their beloved cabin in the Cascade Mountains. In keeping with his research, they designed and built an aerobic waterless toilet for the cabin. Similar toilets are now used in parts of Africa.

Roar and Barbara were married for 63 years, until Barbara’s death in 2021. Throughout their lives, they were interested in the environment, health, and music. They were recycling, reusing, and repurposing long before these became trends. Roar was a model on the Connie Lollar yoga show aired on Channel 21 in Springfield, MO and both he and Barbara continued running and yoga in their retirement. Roar also actively engaged in horticulture. A founding member of the Salel Chapter of the Washington Native Plant Society, he designed and implemented the “Alpine Garden” which remains on exhibit today. He was very pleased to receive a permit allowing him to transplant native plants from federal and state parks to the Chapter’s native garden. In their 70s, Roar and Barbara joined a Scandinavian folk-dance troop which they stayed with through their 80s. In 2021, at age 90, Roar set a new record in the Washington State Senior Games’ men’s 100-meter race for his age group, which he still holds as of January 2024. He was also proud of the numerous blue ribbons his needlepoint and Norwegian rug-hooking pieces earned. The couple founded music recital clubs in every place they lived, supported local musical organizations, and Roar sang in choirs throughout his life including a Gregorian chant choir and the Skagit, WA Opera Chorus. Roar played his final piano recital in Minnesota on May 6, 2023. 

Roar had a lifelong love for microbiology and the study of bacteria. After retiring, he maintained a small lab in his garage where he continued to experiment for the rest of his life. He made significant contributions in the isolation, identification, and characterization of many diverse groups of bacteria. His primary interest at MSU was with the isolation and characterization of purple-sulfur and hydrogen-producing bacteria. In 1986 and 1987 he traveled to Antarctica as a member of the University of Washington research team, headed by Dr. James Staley, where they collected sea ice samples from Scott Base and McMurdo Sound. He isolated and characterized several different psychrophilic bacteria from these samples, many of which contained pigmented gas vacuoles. The research team named one of these gas vacuole bacteria after him, Polaribacter irgensii. Roar always enjoyed discussing microbiology; a favorite topic was microbes with interesting metabolic capabilities and unusual lifestyles. He was awarded the National Science Foundation Antarctica Service Medal and the Department of the Navy Antarctica Service Medal in 1987 for his work in Antarctica. 

Roar’s wife, Barbara, his siblings, and two nieces predeceased him. Survivors are his two children, Leif Irgens (Billie Wiant) and Heidi Irgens (Stuart Cheney), two grandchildren, Sylvia Cheney-Irgens and Aminda Benkel (Ethan), and his many nieces and nephews. Roar was a loving husband, father, and grandfather,
and a cherished professor, colleague, and friend. 

Roar’s memorial service will take place Saturday, June 8, 2024, from 10 a.m. to 12 Noon CT in Blunt Hall Rm 143 on the MSU Campus. To attend via streaming or for more information email Memorial Service. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the “Roar and Barbara Irgens Scholarship,” payable to Missouri State University Foundation, 300 S. Jefferson Ave, Suite 505, Springfield, MO 65806.

Obituary By: 
Heidi I. Irgens, MA