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Biographical Memoirs: Volume 91
PAUL KARL STUMPF
February 23, 1919–February 10, 2007
BY ERIC E. CONN
PAUL STUMPF WAS A WORLD LEADER in the field of plant biochemistry, especially in the subject of plant lipid metabolism. Others have written,
His research accomplishments elucidating the synthesis and metabolism of fats and lipids are too numerous to list here. His discovery in plants of the pathway for degrading fatty acids by alpha-oxidation stands as a singularly important achievement as it provided the understanding of the biochemical basis for a class of human genetic defects, including adult Refsum disease, an inability to metabolize phytanic acid. His research provided a basic understanding of fatty acid and lipid biosynthesis in plants. Paul’s approach to science was perhaps reflected by his admiration of Impressionist paintings. He was interested in providing the science that formed the picture, without concern for minute detail. He saw research as Nobel Laureate Albert Szent-Gyorgyi did, whose quotation we all saw when facing Paul in his office: ‘Research is seeing what others have seen, but thinking what no others have thought.’ Paul was a visionary, foreseeing the impact of genetic engineering on plant research back in the 1970s, when gene cloning was still a decade in the future. Research results produced in his lab laid the foundation for genetic modification of oilseeds to alter their fatty acid composition.1
Paul was born in New York City on February 23, 1919, under rather tragic circumstances. Two months before Paul’s birth his father, Karl S. Stumpf, committed suicide in New York City, leaving his mother without her husband, and her one-year-old child, Felix, without a father.