In Memoriam: Timothy C. Hall, 1937-2016

Dr. Timothy C. Hall, Senior Distinguished Professor of Biology at Texas A&M University and director of the Texas A&M Institute of Developmental and Molecular Biology, passed away on Tuesday, February 23 after having suffered a heart attack on the morning of Sunday, February 21. He was 78.

The memorial service for the eminent biologist was held on Saturday, April 2nd in Biological Sciences Building East (BSBE) room 115. Dr. Hall was a pioneer of plant molecular biology, plant transformation, and related biotechnology who joined the Texas A&M faculty in 1984 as a distinguished professor of biology and head of the Department of Biology. His laboratory focused on extensive use of recombinant DNA strategies and plant transformation and regeneration procedures to study molecular mechanisms of gene structure, function and regulation in higher plants and their viruses.

Dr. Thomas D. McKnight, professor and current head of Texas A&M Biology and longtime colleague, says Hall’s research revolutionized our understanding of gene regulation in plants, especially the involvement of chromatin in spatial control of expression and in gene silencing.

“It is impossible to overstate the magnitude of the transformation of our department that Tim managed to pull off in the mid-1980s,” McKnight added. “I have always appreciated his amazing accomplishments during the eight years that he served as head of the department, but since becoming department head myself a couple of years ago, that appreciation has turned into utter awe.”

“Tim was an integral part of our department for more than 30 years, and although he built an incredible scientific, educational and administrative legacy that will last through the ages, we will miss him as a colleague, mentor and friend.”

After stepping down as department head in 1992, Hall devoted much of his time to research, earning the prestigious JoAnn Treat Award for Research in 2010. He also enjoyed sharing his passion for plants by teaching BIOL 101: Introductory Botany to 100 students each fall, and McKnight says Hall considered his 2004 Professor-of-the-Semester Award from the Chi Omega Sorority one of his most treasured honors.

McKnight notes that, as a high school student in England, Hall traipsed across the Yorkshire Dales, exploring the local flora and fauna. He often attended evening lectures organized by the Royal Society, taking in the trailblazing insights of Sir Lawrence Bragg, Francis Crick, Jim Watson and other luminaries that encouraged and expanded his scientific interests. After a few years of flying fighter jets for the Royal Air Force, Hall enrolled in the University of Nottingham, earning his bachelor of science degree in botany (first class, with honors) in 1962 and his Ph.D. in plant physiology in 1965. He then moved to the United States and, after a one-year postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Minnesota-St. Paul, he accepted a faculty position at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he worked for the next 16 years.

“During this time, Tim became one of the founders of the field of plant molecular biology by rapidly applying cutting-edge techniques to longstanding problems in the plant sciences,” McKnight said. “Tim’s lab was the first to achieve the transfer of a functional gene from one plant to another, and he helped set up the Agrigenetics Advanced Research Laboratory, one of the first plant biotechnology companies, in the early 1980s. It would be an understatement to say that Tim was at the scientific forefront during most of his career; he was the forefront.”

Dr. John P. Fackler Jr., distinguished professor emeritus of chemistry and former dean of the College of Science, recalls recruiting Hall to Texas A&M from Wisconsin to transform the Biology department from one that was largely dedicated to its service teaching role to one with a healthier balance of teaching and research more appropriate for a major research university.

“Tim’s move to Texas was noticed throughout his field,” McKnight added. “His arrival gave the Department of Biology and the entire campus instant credibility, not only in molecular biology, but also in biotechnology. His Herculean efforts to improve the life sciences research enterprise created benefits across the campus.”

“When I arrived as part of the initial five assistant professors he hired in his first year as department head, I was surprised and very grateful for the attention that he devoted to all of us newcomers, who were thrown into a department that had not yet fully embraced the kind of change that he knew was necessary. Mentoring seems to be encoded directly in his DNA, and I try to model my mentoring of our junior faculty members, departmental staff members and my own graduate students after what I have seen him implement so successfully, both with personnel across the department and the many Ph.D. students and postdoctoral fellows who have passed through his lab and gone on to very successful careers in other universities, the biotech industry or government research agencies.”

Just last year, Hall was honored by one of those students, Eric Yong Xu ’93, as the namesake of the Timothy C. Hall-Heep Foundation Distinguished Visiting Faculty Chair in Biology, established by Xu through the Texas A&M Foundation. Xu’s $1 million gift was matched with Herman F. and Minnie Bell Heep Foundation funds to create a $2 million chair to bring distinguished faculty members to campus through the Texas A&M Institute for Advanced Study (TIAS). The chair, only the second created in the Department of Biology, will be used to defray costs associated with recruiting TIAS Faculty Fellows in biology, particularly those focused on plant science, and to support a related ongoing visiting faculty lecture series in biology.

“Tim was well known for his thoughtful and nurturing mentoring at all levels,” McKnight said. “Just as important as his caring and supportive side, are his rigorous expectations and willingness to let people he cares about know when they inevitably make a misstep or two. Even when providing this tough love, however, everyone always understood that Tim ultimately had their best interest at heart. His legacy will live for a very long time through all of the people he has mentored over the years, including all of the former students who owe their success to his nurturing guidance and occasional swift kick.”

Dr. Craig L. Nessler, director of Texas A&M AgriLife Research since 2009 and a plant scientist, says he too learned a lot from Hall during his own lengthy academic career that started as an assistant professor in Texas A&M Biology in 1979 and included various professorial and administrative appointments during his 21-year stint in the department.

“I will always be grateful to Dr. Hall for the example he gave as an outstanding scientist and administrator,” Nessler said. “I know learned a lot from his firm but fair style, and I hope I can continue to honor him by promoting excellence in myself and others.”

A decorated scholar and researcher, Hall was extremely active nationally and internationally as both a member of and leader in a variety of professional organizations and honorary societies benefiting biology, biochemistry, microbiology, molecular biology, plant biology, virology and general life sciences. He served on many editorial boards and advisory bodies, most notably as member of the scientific steering committee of the National Institute of Biological Science in Beijing.

Hall is survived by his wife, Sunee; his son, Peter; and his daughters, Anna and Liza. His life will be celebrated on Saturday, April 2 at 10:00 am in Biological Sciences Building East (BSBE) room 115. Cards, letters and other written forms of condolences may be addressed to the Timothy C. Hall Family in care of the Department of Biology, Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas 77843-3258. In lieu of flowers or other offerings, his family has requested that donations be made to the Timothy Hall Memorial Fund, which will benefit the Department of Biology that he loved so much, in care of the Texas A&M Foundation, 401 George Bush Drive, College Station, Texas 77840-2811.

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2017-08-08T10:37:32+00:00 January 12th, 2017|Categories: News|Tags: , |