Dr. Charles Gehrke, researcher and businessman, dies at 91

Wednesday, February 11, 2009 | 11:02 p.m. CST; updated 6:41 p.m. CST, Friday, February 13, 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.

*CLARIFICATION: Charles Gehrke retired in 1987 from what is now MU's biochemistry department. An earlier version did not clarify that the agricultural chemistry department had combined with the biochemistry department at this time.

COLUMBIA — At his first meeting with his biographer, all 90-year-old Dr. Charles Gehrke wanted to talk about was his latest grant proposal to NASA.

Family and friends say that despite his many accomplishments as a researcher and entrepreneur, Dr. Gehrke, who succumbed to lymphoma Tuesday, was never one to dwell on the past. 

Remembering Charles Gehrke

Dr. Charles Gehrke's family welcomes the public to join them at the following memorial events:

Friday, Feb. 20

Public visitation: 4 to 7 p.m. at Memorial Funeral Home, 1217 Business Loop 70 W.

Saturday, Feb. 21

Memorial service: 11 a.m. at First Presbyterian Church, 16 Hitt St. in Columbia, with a graveside service at Memorial Park Cemetery to follow.

Reception: 3 p.m. at the Reynolds Alumni Center at MU.

The longtime MU professor did a lot with his life, hunting for signs of life in moon rocks and helping found ABC Labs, now one of Columbia's largest employers; he continued to add to his résumé until his death on Feb. 10, 2009. He was 91.

As recently as a month ago, Dr. Gehrke was bringing folks to research meetings at ABC Labs' new facility, his son, Jon Gehrke, an orthopedic surgeon in Des Moines, Iowa, said.

His children agreed that out of his 70-year career in science and business, Dr. Gehrke was proudest of two things: his grandchildren and the research he did for NASA.

'Is there life on the moon?'

In the late '60s, NASA asked Dr. Gehrke to screen rocks brought home from the first moon landing for any signs of extraterrestrial life. Dr. 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 now part of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.

Before he signed a contract with NASA, Jon said, his father had to sign release forms stating that, if he were to catch some sort of extraterrestrial disease from the rocks, he wouldn't fight when they whisked him away to permanent quarantine. That shows just how little the government knew about the moon at that time, Jon said, and what a gaping void of knowledge his father helped fill.

His daughter Susan Isaacson, an attorney in Minneapolis, said Dr. Gehrke was proud to be chosen to answer the first question everybody asked after the Apollo astronauts came home: Is there life on the moon? "As a scientist," she said, "There's no greater honor."

Even after the Apollo program wound down, Dr. 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 this decade. Dr. Gehrke pushed for the construction of a lunar laboratory, his children said, and even travel to Mars.

"He knew that we wouldn't be around to see that happen," Jon said, "but he wanted it to happen" regardless.

'He never took shortcuts'

Karl Friedrich Wilhelm Gehrke was born July 18, 1917, to German immigrants in New York City. At a young age, he moved to tiny Canal Lewisville, Ohio, and Anglicized his name.

"His father was not really part of the picture," Jon said. His mother cleaned houses and worked in a shoe factory to support her family. Dr. Gehrke himself worked on farms from an early age as his family struggled to survive.

Those trying early years left Dr. Gehrke with an complete lack of pretension, his children said. Despite his commercial success and national recognition, he still lived in the same modest house on Edgewood Avenue that he had built when he moved to Columbia six decades ago.

"He did everything in a very honest way," Jon said. "He never took shortcuts, never compromised anything."

Dr. Gehrke earned his Ph.D. in agricultural biochemistry from The Ohio State University, finishing his studies in 1947 after taking time off to teach chemistry at Missouri Valley College in Marshall in the mid '40s. He came to MU as an associate professor of agricultural chemistry in 1948, and became the manager of Experiment Station Chemical Laboratories in 1954.

Dr. Gehrke's first major breakthrough came in the automation of gas chromatographic analysis of amino acids. Before Dr. Gehrke's work in the '60s, researchers could analyze one or two samples a day, said Jim Ussary, one of Dr. Gehrke's former graduate assistants and his business partner. After Gehrke and his assistants automated the process, Ussary said, they could analyze about 20 samples an hour.

It was this advance that would lead to Dr. Gehrke's greatest entrepreneurial success.

In 1968, Dr. Gehrke founded Analytical Bio-Chemistry Laboratories Inc. with the help of Ussary and David Stallings, another graduate student. ABC Labs used Gehrke's methods to analyze amino acids for the agricultural industry. Dr. Gehrke chaired the company's board of directors until 1991, and remained an active member until 2003.

Ussary, now 72 and retired in Goldsboro, N.C., said he took care of ABC's business side, as Dr. Gehrke preferred to focus on his research.

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.

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.

Dr. 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.

In 1987, Dr. Gehrke retired from the biochemistry* department and began helping at MU's Cancer Research Center. He stayed there until 1993.

One piece of his legacy, the Charles W. Gehrke Proteomics Center in the Bond Life Sciences Building, was dedicated in 2004.

Even when he stopped working at MU, Isaacson said, Dr. Gehrke kept working and never became irrelevant.

He was still a leader in his chosen fields, she said.

Catalyst for innovation

Jon Gehrke compared his father to one of the catalysts in the elder Gehrke's never-ending stream of experiments, projects and trials, someone who "brought people together to accomplish something greater" than they could have individually.

"His whole life revolved around hard work, doing the right thing and bringing ideas together," Jon said.

Dr. Charles Gehrke brought people from across the world together during his 33-year career as director of MU's Experiment Station Chemical Laboratories and well into his retirement. Dr. Gehrke advised 60 post-graduate students, hosted scores of visiting researchers and authored or co-authored nine books and more than 260 peer-reviewed articles.

Although Dr. Gehrke's devotion to his work was considerable, his children said, his family never felt eclipsed by business or science.

Dr. Gehrke pitched in around the house at a level that was unusually high for his era, biographer Dianna O'Brien said. She said he was so involved in his children's upbringing that he washed dishes every night and even helped his wife, Virginia, change diapers.

Virginia died on Dec. 25, 2006, the couple's 65th wedding anniversary. She was 87.

His oldest son, physician Charles Jr., was training to become a flight surgeon when he died in a mid-air collision in March of 1982. He was 34.

"(The plane crash) killed my brother," Jon said, "and it just about killed my parents."

Jon Gehrke described his father as "open with people" and "not judgmental with anyone," saying that Dr. Gehrke was interested in others until the final days of his life, when he asked the nurses in his ICU unit where they came from and where they went to school.

O'Brien remembered how, even at age 90, Dr. Gehrke would go out before she visited and shovel a path through the snow from her parking space to the front door, just to make things more convenient for her.

"I feel very very honored that I got to be his biographer, but I also felt very honored that I got to know somebody who was such a great role model," she said.

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Robert Simms February 12, 2009 | 9:59 a.m.

He was a great guy! A fellow Cosomopolitan International Luncheon Club member. He will be missed!

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