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Biochemist, National Medal of Science winner and retired UC Berkeley professor Horace A. Barker dies at 93
08 Jan 2001

By Robert Sanders, Media Relations

Horace Albert Barker

Horace Albert Barker

Berkeley - Horace Albert Barker, one of the preeminent biochemists of the mid-20th century and professor emeritus of biochemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, died Dec. 24 at his home in Berkeley after a brief illness. He was 93.

Barker, who had a research building named after him at UC Berkeley in 1988, is best known for work in the late 1950s on the biochemical function of vitamin B-12. This was regarded as a major advance in understanding the complex chemical conversion processes inside living organisms.

"He was richly deserving of the Nobel Prize for his work on coenzyme B-12," said biochemist Jack F. Kirsch, professor of molecular and cell biology at UC Berkeley. "He was one of the finest microbiologists who ever lived."

Barker also was a member of the team that, in 1944, first discovered the enzymatic steps living cells take when they synthesize sucrose - common table sugar. This feat involved one of the first uses of radioactive carbon-14 tracers, which Barker helped pioneer.

His studies in vitamin chemistry, bacterial metabolism, fatty acid oxidation and synthesis, carbohydrate transformations and amino acid and purine metabolism form a basic structure for much of our current understanding of metabolism and its role in sickness and health.

"He was a true leader in biochemistry and a leader on campus, widely respected internationally and by his Berkeley colleagues," said Daniel E. Koshland Jr., professor emeritus of biochemistry at UC Berkeley. "He was very self-effacing, but was the real core of the biochemistry department initially and as it developed on campus."

Barker won numerous awards for his achievements, including the National Medal of Science in 1968 and election to the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

An avid fisherman and outdoorsman, he continued into his 90s to hike and fish at his summer cabin near Mount Lassen.

Barker was born in Oakland, Calif., on Nov. 29, 1907, and raised in Palo Alto. He received his AB in physical sciences in 1929 and a PhD in chemistry in 1933 from Stanford University. After two years as a National Research Council Fellow at the Hopkins Marine Station in Monterey, Calif., and a year at the Technical University of Delft, Holland, he came to UC Berkeley as an instructor in soil microbiology in 1936. He was appointed a full professor of soil microbiology in 1946, but switched titles periodically until 1959, when he became a professor in the new Department of Biochemistry in the College of Letters & Science.

He chaired the Department of Plant Nutrition from 1949-50, the Department of Plant Biochemistry from 1950-1953, and the Department of Biochemistry from 1962-1964. He retired as a professor emeritus of biochemistry in 1975, although he remained active in the department into his 80s.

During his early career he studied the metabolism of ethyl alcohol and acetic acid (vinegar) in bacteria, providing important new information on the formation of fatty acids. Other bacterial studies laid the foundation for our current understanding of the role of folic acid, one of the B vitamins.

It was during work on a common soil bacterium, Clostridium tetanomorphum, isolated from the mud of San Francisco Bay, that he and his coworkers discovered in 1959 vitamin B-12 coenzyme - the active form of vitamin B-12 that performs certain critical chemical conversions in the body. He subsequently mapped out many of the metabolic reactions involving vitamin B-12 coenzyme, clarifying its role in building body tissue. This contributed greatly to an understanding of several human diseases, including pernicious anemia, caused by a deficiency of vitamin B-12.

Among the awards he received during his career were the Sugar Research Award of the National Academy of Sciences in 1945, with Michael Doudoroff and William Z. Hassid, his colleagues in the enzymatic synthesis of sucrose; the Carl Neuberg Medal of the American Society of European Chemists; the Borden Award in Nutrition from the American Institute of Nutrition in 1962; the California Scientist of the Year award from the California Museum of Science and Industry in 1966; and the Gowland Hopkins Medal of the London Biochemist Society in 1967.

He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1953, authored or coauthored some 235 scholarly publications, and received honorary doctorate degrees from Western Reserve University, now part of Case Western Reserve University, and Munich University in Germany.

He is survived by two daughters, Barbara Friede of Piedmont, Calif., and Betsy Mark of Lexington, Mass; a son, Bob Barker of Camino, Calif.; and four grandchildren. His wife, Margaret (McDowell) Barker, died in 1995.