Frederic Richards: Founder of MB&B Department

Sherwin Yu | October 25, 2009

Frederic Richards

Frederic Richards, Sterling Professor Emeritus and founding chair of the Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry department, passed away on January 11, 2009. He was 83. Richards will be remembered for his innovative research in protein chemistry and his integral role in the development of protein and structural biology at Yale.

Richards’s work focused on understanding how a protein’s primary structure (linear sequence of amino acids) is related to its three-dimensional tertiary structure. To understand this connection, he treated ribonuclease A (RNase A), an enzyme that cleaves RNA, with a protease that breaks the enzyme’s peptide covalent bonds. This chemical treatment created a new form of RNase A called RNase S, which retained enzymatic function. He then separated the cleaved RNase S by chroma­tography into S-protein and S-peptide, both of which lacked enzymatic activity.

His pivotal discovery occurred when he com­bined the protein and peptide fragments, finding that RNase A activity was restored. This work suggested that a protein’s tertiary structure is a property of its amino acid sequence – a notion that changed the field of protein chemistry.

Richards’s other work involved understanding protein structures. He introduced the concept of solvent-accessible surface area, which redefined the views of the “inside” and “outside” of a pro­tein structure. He also made contributions to x-ray crystallography and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, both of which are used extensively today to resolve macromolecular structures.

Richards joined the Yale faculty as a member of the Department of Biochemistry in 1955 and become a tenured professor in 1963. During the same year, he was appointed Chairman of the Department of Molecular Biology and Bio­physics. Shortly after his appointment, Richards worked towards merging his department with the Medical School Department of Biochemistry to form the Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry. Through his strong leadership and vision, Richards overcame the challenges of a department with divided campuses. Over time, he developed one of the major centers of study in biophysics and structural biology in the world. Richards is survived by his wife, Sarah Wheatland Richards, his three children, Sarah, Ruth, and George, and four grandchildren.