Charles Gehrke, researcher and businessman, dies at 91

Wednesday, February 11, 2009 | 1:55 p.m. CST; updated 11:12 p.m. CST, Wednesday, February 11, 2009
Charles Gehrke, left, and graduate student Robert Zumwalt examine a sample of lunar rock at Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Pasadena, Calif. in the late '60s or early 70s. The moon rocks were brought home by one of the Apollo missions.

COLUMBIA — Ground-breaking researcher and businessman Charles Gehrke, longtime MU professor and co-founder of ABC Labs, died Tuesday, Feb. 10, 2009, in Columbia, a family friend reported. Gehrke was 91.

Gehrke was hospitalized on Jan. 18 and after a few weeks of attempted rehabilitation, succumbed to lymphoma in the company of his children Susan Isaacson and Jon Gehrke, family friend Dianna O'Brien said.

During his 37-year career as director of MU's Experiment Station Chemical Laboratories and well into retirement, Gehrke advised 60 post-graduate students and authored or co-authored nine books and 260 peer-reviewed articles.

His work in chromatography and related disciplines helped scientists in a wide range of activities from rapidly analyzing a crop's nutritional content to quickly detecting a cancer's advances and remissions. Gehrke was recognized by many different organizations for his contributions to his chosen field. In 1971, he earned the Association of Official Analytical Chemists' most prestigious award; in 1983 he served as the association's president.

NASA asked Gehrke to screen rocks brought home from the first moon landing for any signs of extraterrestrial life. Gehrke was selected because of his pioneering work analyzing amino acids, critical building blocks of life. The chromatograph he used to search for life in the lunar samples from six different Apollo missions is part of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.

In 1968, Gehrke founded Analytical Bio-Chemistry Laboratories Inc. with the help of two graduate students — David Stalling and James Ussary — to analyze amino acids for the agricultural industry. Gehrke remained on the company's board of directors until 2003.

According to the company's Web site, ABC Labs now employs 300 scientists and support staff, making it one of Columbia's largest employers and a key resident of MU's Discovery Ridge research park.

Gehrke never lost his fascination with the final frontier, helping to organize conferences and facilitate discussion on space exploration and the future of humans in space well into the '90s.


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