William Henry Danforth, a cardiologist who founded the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center and transformed Washington University in St. Louis into one of the nation’s leading universities, died September 16. He was 94.
“Bill will be revered in St. Louis as one of the most important civic figures in the history of the city,” says Danforth Plant Science Center President Jim Carrington, who was a close friend of Danforth. “People would talk about him as if he was someone with superpowers, but I think of him as the most human of human beings because he could look to see what people needed and he wasn’t afraid to work and make things better.”
Danforth was born in St. Louis on April 10, 1926, the son of Donald, a business executive for whom he named the Plant Science Center, and Dorothy Danforth, and the grandson of William H. Danforth, the founder of Ralston Purina Co.
He graduated from St. Louis Country Day School and briefly attended Westminster College in Fulton, MO, while serving in the US Navy during World War II. He then transferred to Princeton University where he earned a bachelor’s degree in biology in 1947.
He graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1951, after which he completed an internship at a Washington University hospital. After two years as chief medical officer for four destroyers during the Korean War, he returned to Washington University as a faculty member in 1957 after completing residencies in medicine and pediatrics.
At 39, he was appointed vice chancellor for medical affairs and president of the Washington University Medical Center in 1965. He was named a full professor of internal medicine in 1967.
Five years later, he would become Washington University’s 13th chancellor. During his tenure, the university’s enrollment increased elevenfold and faculty members won 11 Nobel Prizes and two Pulitzer Prizes. He established 70 endowed professorships, tripled the number of student scholarships, and oversaw the growth of the endowment to $1.72 billion, which in 1995 was the seventh largest in the country, according to a Washington University memorial.
Danforth also established the Spencer T. Olin Fellowship Program for Women in graduate and professional studies, the McDonnell Center for the Space Sciences, and a joint Division of Biology and Biomedical Sciences with 29 basic science and clinical departments.
His wife was sure he would serve only three or four years as chancellor, she told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in a 1993 interview. Instead, he stayed on for 24 years until 1995, when he retired and became chairman of Washington University’s Board of Trustees. Danforth continued to be an important advocate and fundraiser for scientific research for years to come.
Believing that cutting-edge agricultural and sustainability research could help feed an ever-increasing global population, Danforth founded the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center with a $60 million gift from his family’s foundation in 1998 and served as its chairman until 2013. The independent, nonprofit research institute now employs 28 principal investigators.
An obituary by the Post-Dispatch states that Danforth had previously told the newspaper that the idea for a plant science center came after a conversation he had with Peter Raven, then the director of the Missouri Botanical Garden, and Virginia Weldon, a former Monsanto vice president. “We were on our way to a meeting in Irvine, California, and it occurred to us that our region had the potential to emerge as an international leader in plant science,” he said.
In 2000, he founded the Coalition for Plant and Life Sciences (now BioSTL) to stimulate the creation of biomedical companies in St. Louis. He served as the chairman of the organization from 2000 to 2011.
That year, he also received the Alexander Meiklejohn Award from the American Association of University Professors for his support of academic freedom.
Danforth was also named “Man of the Year” in 1977 by the St. Louis Globe-Democrat and received the 2012 St. Louis Award for his outstanding leadership and commitment to the St. Louis region, particularly for his role in establishing the Danforth Center.
In 2006, Washington University renamed its Hilltop campus the Danforth Campus to honor the contributions of Danforth and his family.
Also that year, Danforth was a leading voice in favor of Missouri’s Amendment 2, a ballot measure that narrowly passed, enshrining in the state constitution access by Missouri patients and researchers to any method of stem cell research, therapies, and cures permitted under federal law. He helped found and donated more than $150,000 to the Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures that led the charge on the ballot initiative.
In 2007, he served on a task force and testified before Congress to urge the formation of a $1 billion national institute for agricultural research. The following year, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture was created with the goal to stimulate and fund the research and innovations to enhance American agriculture and make it more productive and environmentally sustainable.
“Bill was the most generous and giving of his time,” Carrington tells The Scientist. “He gave time and attention to everybody who needed or wanted time and attention with him.”
Danforth is survived by two daughters, Maebelle Anne Danforth and Elizabeth Danforth, his son, David Danforth, a brother, John Danforth, 13 grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren. A fourth child, Cynthia Danforth Prather, died in 2017. His wife, Elizabeth, died of cancer in 2005 at the age of 75.