• Born: January 6, 1923 in Berthoud, Colorado, youngest of 4 boys.
  • Graduated from Fort Morgan High School, Fort Morgan, Colorado in 1940
  • Given a four year scholarship to the University of Colorado, Boulder


I was born in Berthoud, Colorado on January 6, 1923, the fourth son and last child of William and Mary Anna Conn. My father was the assistant manager of a Farmers' Union grain elevator in that small town north of Denver. During the 1920s and 1930s my father managed and/or owned grain elevators in Nebraska and Kansas; he and my mother had started married life on a Kansas farm in 1910.

I grew up in a small town in Kansas in the midst of the Great Depression, where my family experienced the dust bowl years and their effects on the Great Plains.

After my parents lost most of their assets except for their home during the Depression, we moved to Fort Morgan, Colorado. That small town of 5,000 had an excellent high school, where I did well academically. As the class valedictorian, it was assumed I would go to the University of Colorado at Boulder, and was encouraged in that regard. I won an all-tuition scholarship for four years to study there. 



  • Graduated from Boulder in 1944, B.S. in Chemistry.  Phi Beta Kappa.
  • Work in Oak Ridge, Tennessee as a civilian
  • Drafted in 1945, still worked in Oak Ridge, but as a private in the US Army


Dr. Reuben GustavsonA close friend, who had already spent a year at Boulder, urged me to visit the chemistry department there in the spring of 1940. My friend arranged an interview with a professor of chemistry, Dr. Reuben Gustavson, who would eventually have a major influence on my career. Dr. Gustavson suggested that I consider majoring in chemistry, which I declared when I enrolled that fall.

I had my first exposure to an outstanding lecturer in his chemistry classes.  Dr. Gustavso would enter the lecture room with his notes (a few 3 x 5 cards), and deliver highly organized lectures, filling the chalkboard with structures and equations. Moreover, he soon knew the names of most of the hundred or so students in the course, and after a few days started calling on us by name to answer questions and write and balance chemical equations, all in a nonthreatening way. His performance strongly influenced my determination.

During my last two undergraduate years (1942-1944) I served as a teaching assistant in various chemistry courses.  Dr. Gustavson arranged for me to be hired by the Manhattan Project as soon as I graduated, and I caught a train for Oak Ridge. There I worked primarily as an inorganic chemist. My first publication, coauthored of course, was on the half-life of an isotope of nickel produced in the experimental, plutonium-producing uranium pile at Site X-10.

As the war wound down, I realized that many of my friends in Oak Ridge were planning to go, or return, to graduate school, and I incorporated that objective into my immediate plans. As I look back over those years now, I realize how much was left to chance, at least in my case.


Abbot Hall ChicagoTHE CHICAGO YEARS, 1946-1950

  • Graduated University of Chicago, PhD in biochemistry in 1948


I again relied on Dr. Gus for advice when planning for gradaute study. He was now Vice-President and Dean of Faculties at the University of Chicago, and I stopped in Chicago to see him on a trip to Denver in December 1945, when he advised me to apply to the Biochemistry Department there. I applied to Chicago, as well as to Harvard, and when the offer of a teaching assistantship arrived from Chicago (one day before a similar offer from Harvard appeared in the mail), I accepted. At this point I officially launched my career in biochemistry at the University of Chicago.



Professor Birgit Vennesland was my Ph.D. supervisor, and because she was interested in carbon dioxide fixation as mediated by malic enzyme and other such dark fixation enzymes, I was exposed to higher plants as experimental material.

Professor Birgit VenneslandThe University of Chicago was an exciting place in those years. My entire first year in the Vennesland lab was spent in an attempt to isolate Coenzyme II or triphosphopyridine nucleotide (TPN), as NADP was called in those days, from 50 pounds of hog liver. It was a time when biochemical research involved a lot of effort just to obtain the reagents needed.



After I finished my Ph.D., I stayed on at Chicago for two years at the request of Dr. Vennesland, who wanted someone to help her graduate students while she was on sabbatical leave. I participated in several research projects and acquired some expertise in supervising less-experienced students. One of the projects that I was privileged to participate in went on to become textbook material. This was the thesis research of Harvey Fisher, a graduate student of Vennesland's.

While I was making plans to accept an invitation to a group at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) at their expense, ostensibly to be considered for a postdoctoral position, I was contacted by Daniel Arnon, a member of Dennis Hoagland's famous Department of Soils and Plant Nutrition in Berkeley to tell me about a tenure- track opening for a plant biochemist in the Hoagland department, and he invited me to spend a few days there on my way to Pasadena.

The week in Pasadena was stimulating and very enjoyable, but Caltech had few permanent positions in plant biology and that most of the people in his group would go on to other institutions after they spent several years with him. By the time I got back to Chicago, I had job offers from both institutions. After advice from Vennesland and some thought on my part, I decided to accept the position at Berkeley.


Professor Paul StumpfI was hired in 1950 by the University of California, Berkeley.

Starting in the fall of 1954, I found myself a member of the small (four members) but unbelievably rich environment of the Department of Agricultural Biochemistry. Barker and Hassid were very senior scientists - already members of the National Academy of Sciences and I had presented seminars on their research while still a graduate student at Chicago. Paul Stumpf had also welcomed me to Berkeley when I first arrived.

After a few months of settling into this ideal situation, Paul gave me some friendly advice; he was nearer my age and was becoming my closest colleague in the department. Paul was in the process of initiating his lifelong work on lipid metabolism, and found it to be an exhilarating and rewarding experience after his previous work on glycolytic enzymes as a graduate student with David Green. His advice was to take up a new field and show what you can accomplish.

I was fortunate to have Tsune Kosuge as my first graduate student; he had a master's degree in plant pathology from Washington State University, and wanted to study plant biochemistry to apply that discipline to plant pathology. Tsune came to Berkeley in 1955 hoping to work with Paul Stumpf, but because Paul was going to Bernie Horecker's lab at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) on his first sabbatical leave, Paul graciously suggested that Tsune work with me. Tsune had presented a seminar on the role of coumarin in the formation of dicoumarol in spoiled sweet clover hay, studied by the legendary K. P. Link at the University of Wisconsin, and decided to investigate the enzymes involved in the biosynthesis of coumarin.

Tsune Kosuge's thesis research, and the papers that resulted from it, together with his work carried out after he joined the atoms (i.e., C6-C3 phenylpropanes), as well as an aromatic ring and a side chain of a single carbon atom (i.e., C6-C1 phenylmethanes), but that C6-C2 compounds are far fewer in natural occurrence. Because the cyanogenic glycosides are of the latter type, and also have the triple-bonded nitrile group, I thought these substances might show some interesting enzymology; I therefore concentrated my efforts and limited resources on the study of those compounds.


THE DAVIS YEARS, 1958-2017

  • Moved to UC Davis to start the Department of Biochemistry with Paul Stumpf in 1958
  • Married Louise Caroline Kachel in October 17, 1959

Eric and Louise Conn

These years started with my marriage to Louise Kachel, a friend from my Chicago days, on October 19, 1959, a few months before we departed for my sabbatical in England. I spent my postponed sabbatical leave at the Low Temperature Station in Cambridge, England.

Louise and I left England in June 1960 to spend our summer vacation on the continent; we visited friends she had made while working in Paris during the four years immediately preceding our marriage in 1959. In Germany I called on Hans Grisebach in Freiburg; this was the first of numerous visits in later years to that beautiful city.

Back in Davis, I was eager to continue with my teaching and research. Although I performed my share of service on university committees, my primary commitment was to the students and postdoctoral scholars in my lab, and the undergraduates in my courses.

From 1966 on, research in my group centered on several different aspects of cyano-genesis, with two important exceptions. The first exception was work on cinnamic-4-hydroxylase (C4H) by David Russell. The second concerned the role of the nonaromatic amino acid, arogenic acid, in the biosynthesis of tyrosine and phenylalanine in sorghum.

Work continued on cyanogenesis in plants until I retired in 1993, and many excellent students, postdoctoral scholars, and visiting scientists contributed to that effort. Over the years I have discussed their work in different reviews and the interested reader can consult those papers. This research would not have been possible without the essential contributions of all the highly talented people whose work is described in those reviews.


  • Elected to the National Academies of Science in 1988
  • Awarded the 1990 UC Davis Prize for Teaching and Scholarly Achievement ($25,000)
  • Retired from the University of California after 42 years in 1992 as Professor Emeritus

Eric Conn TeachingBecause Paul Stumpf and I had taught the one-semester biochemistry survey course in Berkeley, we designed a more comprehensive but still introductory course and offered it on the Davis campus.

Approximately 60 students enrolled in the course in the fall of 1958. The following fall, there were over 100 students. By the end of the 1960s, I was lecturing to classes approaching 400 students. The course became a requirement for numerous undergraduate majors at Davis, and also attracted graduate students who needed biochemistry in their research. We were surprised that this course attracted more students on a campus of four or I've thousand than a similar course at UC Berkeley, with its enrollment of 20,000.

We attributed this interest to the large amount of activity in various biological sciences at Davis, primarily in the College of Agriculture. The increase in course size over the years was the primary reason that allowed us to hire eight or nine additional faculty and eventually offer a well-rounded selection of biochemistry courses.

UC Davis Price ArticleThat course also led to the writing of our introductory textbook, Outlines of Biochemistry. The first edition appeared in 1963 and went though I've editions before we laid it down.Outlines of Biochemistry was the first brief biochemistry text that emphasized the principles of intermediary metabolism and did not attempt to be encyclopedic. However, as plant biochemists we made sure to include chapters on photosynthesis and nitrogen fixation that were notoriously lacking in texts written for medical schools. When I returned from my sabbatical in England, Paul and I offered a graduate course in plant biochemistry in which approximately 75-100 students enrolled for many years.

I mentioned above my admiration of Dr. Gus, my first chemistry professor at Boulder, and how I resolved to model my teaching style after his. I apparently was successful in doing so, for I received the Davis Academic Senate teaching award in 1972, the second year it was offered. Later, when the campus established the UC Davis Prize for Undergraduate Teaching and Scholarly Research accompanied by $25,000, I was the recipient in the third year it was offered.



  • Distinguished Teaching Award
  • UC Davis Prize for Teaching and Scholarly Achievement ($25,000) - 1990
  • Pergamon Phytochemistry Prize and Certificate - 1994



Eric E. Conn Young Investigator Award - ASPB
The Eric E. Conn Young Investigator Award, first given by the Society in 2011, honors Eric E. Conn's contributions in plant biology by recognizing young scientists who will be inspired to follow in his footsteps.  The award recognizes not only outstanding research but also demonstrated excellence in outreach, public service, mentoring, or teaching by plant scientists at the beginning of their careers.  This award is a monetary award made biennially for demonstrated commitment by a member of the Society who is not more than five years post-PhD on January 1st of the year of the presentation.  It also provides one year membership to the Society.



Eric E. Conn