William Henry Danforth, M.D. (1926-2020)

“Food is too important to the human race to be a research afterthought.” Bill Danforth

Each day at the Supporters of Agricultural Research (SoAR) Foundation, we are grateful to and inspired by our founder, Dr. William Danforth.  Dr. Danforth passed away on September 16, 2020 at his home in St. Louis at the age of 94. Bill’s life was full of service and generosity.

We remember him with a twinkle in his eyes and a smile that lit up the room.  Bill was a kind, warm, wise, generous, and caring person.  He believed that our common purpose in life is to help others and make the world a better place.  He encouraged everyone he met to address the world’s great challenges with vision and courage.  He is greatly admired for his professional achievements as Chancellor of Washington University (WashU) in St. Louis, Founding Chairman of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, and Founder of SoAR. 

 “Human ingenuity informed and made powerful by modern science can produce wonders.” - Bill Danforth

When Bill was a young child, his grandfather, founder of the Ralston-Purina company, instructed him and his sibling to cut the word “impossible” out of their dictionary.  This provided him with a lifelong inspiration to achieve the extraordinary.  The children were also taught and expected to give back. The Danforth Foundation, founded in 1927 by the family, has been a major legacy in St. Louis with more than $1.2 billion in grants over 84 years. 

While studying to be a cardiologist at Harvard University, Dr. Danforth became smitten with a Wellesley economics major named Elizabeth “Ibby” Gray. They married in 1950, but the Korean War separated the newlyweds for two years as he served our country.  Ibby was his loving wife for 55 years until her passing in 2005. Bill’s survivors include his children, Maebelle Anne Danforth, Elizabeth G. Danforth, David Danforth; a brother, former U.S. Senator John C. Danforth; 13 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. Their daughter, Cynthia Danforth Prather, died in 2017.

Dr. Danforth’s professional life was full and exceptional. In 1957, Dr. Danforth became an instructor at WashU, an assistant professor in 1960, was named president of the School of Medicine and vice chancellor of the university in 1965.  As WashU’s chancellor from 1971 to 1995, Dr. Danforth lead the transformation of the university into one of the world’s leading teaching and research institutions. He oversaw an elevenfold increase in enrollment and a dramatic growth in academic prestige. During his tenure, faculty members won 11 Nobel Prizes and two Pulitzer Prizes, and WashU consistently ranked among the top universities in the nation.

“We see grand opportunities to use science to benefit humankind — to feed the hungry, to protect the world’s environment for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and to provide discoveries that will help spark the next generation of science-based industry.” - Bill Danforth

Dr. Danforth was tenacious.  In 1998, he founded the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center with the mission to improve human condition through plant science, and served as its chairman through 2013.  Bill believed that advances in plant science and improved agriculture are key to ensuring a healthy planet for “our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”  

In 2003-2004, Dr. Danforth chaired the legislatively mandated United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Research, Education and Economics Task Force to review agricultural research that called for a national institute dedicated to food and agriculture science. Following up on those recommendations, he testified before the Senate Agriculture Committee in 2007 to urge the formation of a national institute for agricultural research in the 2008 Farm Bill.  His efforts resulted in the formation of USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) in 2009.  He later founded SoAR to advocate for increased funding of competitive grants for cutting-edge agricultural research through USDA’s NIFA.

John McDonnell, SoAR’s chairman and Bill’s dear friend and collaborator commented“We should all celebrate having been touched by such a wonderful human being.  Bill always brought out the best in everyone he interacted with.  Words that come to mind are visionary, trail blazer, selfless leader, mentor, wise advisor, and most of all a true friend.  He was always a force for the future and for making whatever he touched better.  He lives on through us all.”


Sources include:
St. Louis Today: William Danforth dies at 94; grew Washington University into world-class institution
The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center: Remembering William H. Danforth
Written by:
Andrea Putman
William Henry Danforth, M.D. (1926-2020)
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