In Memoriam: Edward Renton Leadbetter

The Biology Department wishes to acknowledge the passing of Edward Renton Leadbetter on April 25th, 2015.  Dr. Leadbetter was a Biology faculty member at Amherst College from 1959 to 1977.  Our condolences to his family and our gratitude to his youngest son Jared for writing the obituary that follows. 

Edward R. Leadbetter (1934-2015)
Edward Renton Leadbetter, a former resident of Amherst and former Professor of Biology at Amherst College (AM Honoris Causa, ’70), died peacefully in his sleep at his winter residence in Falmouth MA on April 25. He was 81. He had just completed a week lived exactly as he liked to and chose to, and as a microcosm of his entire adult life: in the research laboratory each and every day, thinking and doing science, conversing with colleagues of all ages; and at home, enjoying food, drink, music, books, and conversation with his spouse of 58 years, Gloria. He had spent the last 10 years as a guest scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution after “retiring” from a 46-year career as a Professor of Microbiology. Ed had spent 18 years on the faculty at Amherst College (from 1959 to 1977), followed by 28 years at The University of Connecticut at Storrs.

Ed was born on January 26, 1934 in the Appalachian coal-mining hamlet of Dixonville PA. His father, John D., was a mine engineer, as were their fathers before them. His mother, Mary Katherine “Katie” (Cost), a schoolteacher and developer of innovative programs in remedial reading and writing, later became a long time resident of Amherst and active member of the community (from after her formal retirement in 1972, until her death in 2001).  After graduating from high school, he attended Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster PA, where he received his Bachelors degree in Biology in 1955. Afterward, Ed initiated his pioneering studies on methane degradation, alkane oxidation, and co-metabolism by bacteria at the University of Texas at Austin.

It was after completing his PhD at UT in 1959 that the 25 year old, already with shiny pate, joined the Biology Faculty at Amherst College, later gaining tenure and rising to the rank of full professor and rotating department chair. Professionally, his time at Amherst was deeply enriched by his interactions with many outstanding students and colleagues. He also collaborated for many years with his friend and colleague at UMASS, Stan Holt. Ed frequently and warmly recited a long list of the accomplishments of and many accolades received by Amherst Biology alum. As a curious side note, Ed was a member of the Screen Actors Guild and played a bit part (as "Mac the cab driver") in the TV movie "Silent Night, Lonely Night", starring Lloyd Bridges and Shirley Jones, an otherwise unmemorable holiday feature filmed in Amherst in the Winter of 1968.  

In early 1978, Ed left Amherst College to become Chair of the Biological Sciences Group at UCONN-Storrs, an administrative position he held for 5 years, before continuing to devote his professional efforts to the teaching and mentoring of graduate and undergraduate students. He retired at the end of 2005, and relocated to Cape Cod to reside year around. During those years at UCONN, Ed cultivated a long and productive research and mentoring collaboration with the late Prof. Walter Godchaux, who had also previously served on the faculty at Amherst College. Weekly drives back into town by the family to visit his mother, “Katie”, continued until her death in 2001.

It was during his years at Amherst College that a long and enriching connection to Woods Hole was forged, and from which numerous students at Amherst benefitted. In 1971, the famous marine microbiologist Holger Jannasch initiated a summer program in microbiology at the Marine Biological Laboratory. He invited Ed to be one of its founding co-instructors. Also that summer, Ed and Gloria purchased their summer home there (around the corner from the late Amherst Prof. Harold H. Plough, ‘13, whose family still resides there). It was their first foray into home ownership, as they were then living in the Amherst College residence at “50 Lincoln Avenue” during the academic year. Ed taught in the program, now called "Microbial Diversity", during its first seven summers, 1971 to 1977. Numerous Amherst undergraduates participated in the program and lived with the family at the summer house during that period. For five summers in the 1990s, Ed returned and was thrilled to co-direct the program. Since it's 1971 inception, the Microbial Diversity has impacted more than 800 students from around the world, including many who have subsequently gone on to develop esteemed careers in research and mentoring.

During his 6 decades as an academic, Ed published numerous research papers with Amherst and other undergraduates. In other highlights of his career, Ed spent 6-month sabbaticals at The University of Sevilla in Spain (1972); and The Biological Research Center in Szeged, Hungary (1985). In 1991, he served a year as a Program Manager at the National Science Foundation in Washington, DC. A Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology, Ed was a member of his professional organization, the American Society for Microbiology, for 60 years. Twice an ASM Lecturer, in 2014 he received the D.C. White Research & Mentoring Award from the society. Ed was filled with joy while greeting and receiving congratulations from the several hundred well-wishing microbiologists, including many former students: it was truly a capstone experience in his long professorial career and affiliation with the society.

Former students at Amherst may recall that Ed loved classical and old-time country music, and nearly all foods representing the full breadth of ethnic cuisines. Influenced from his second sabbatical from Amherst spent in Spain, the family often shared a late summer afternoon glass of chilled, bone-dry sherry with either salted nuts or strong olives. His love of a special and unique wine called Moscato Amabile, introduced to him by "The Master" (Kees van Niel, his research host and mentor during his first sabbatical from Amherst), will remain in the hearts and memories of all who knew him. Anyone visiting the winery of Louis Martini in Napa Valley must remember to ask specifically for it, to keep it chilled as if it were fresh seafood and that all life depended on it, and to share this "nectar of the gods" with as many assembled friends and loved ones as possible, at the first available opportunity. Missed will be Ed's quirky, idiosyncratic style, well typified by his love of Clark's shoes, his sagging white cotton socks (a topic brought up in his teaching reviews on more than one occasion), and his first choice in automobiles, the Peugeot (for many years, Ed and Gloria drove a long line of them, most often station wagons in white, even years after the formal departure of that French automaker from North American operations). Missed will be his whimsical demeanor, and his friendly, bellowing voice. And missed will be those gams he inherited from his mother, his baby blue eyes, and his epic smile. And so it goes: all good things do come to an end.

While Ed cultivated an almost monastic dedication to the study of bacteria (which he often simply called “The Microbe”) with an energized, rare passion that never once waned over 60 years: it takes people to study microbes, and he loved all those around him in his professional and personal life even more deeply. To use his terminology, there were many wonderful "Adjacent Leadbetters" who profoundly touched Ed and his family. The family thanks and acknowledges all those students and faculty who had enriched his life and helped to create so many amazing memories during “The Amherst Years”.

Written and submitted by his youngest son, Jared R. Leadbetter.

14 May 2015 TLR