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Election Year: 1961
Scientific Discipline: Plant, Soil, and Microbial Sciences
Membership Type: Member
Biochemist R. H. Burris outlined various enzymatic mechanisms in plants and bacteria. He defined the pathway through which atmospheric nitrogen is fixed into ammonia—a renewable fertilizer source—by bacteria (rhizobia) in the root nodules of plants. This had important agricultural implications because the fixation system could be improved for more effective large-scale crop yields.
After earning his B.S. from South Dakota State College in 1936, he received his M.S. and PhD from the University of Wisconsin in 1938. He was a National Research Council Fellow at Columbia University where he studied plant biochemistry. In 1941 he began his long career at the University of Wisconsin where he taught bacteriology and biochemistry, becoming a Professor and Chairman of the Biochemistry department in 1958. From 1960 to 1977 he was appointed by the US State Department to evaluate biochemistry and biological nitrogen fixation internationally. He was also the recipient of the National Medal of Science.