Obituary: Danny Kohl, professor emeritus of biology, 87


Danny Howard Kohl, a professor emeritus of biology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, died Saturday, March 12, 2016, in St. Louis. He was 87.

Kohl, who earned a bachelor’s degree in physics, with honors, from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1960 and a doctorate in molecular biology from Washington University in 1965,  served as a scientist and teacher for 38 years, becoming professor emeritus in 2003.

Together with Georgia Shearer, his longtime collaborator in the Department of Biology, he made seminal contributions to the understanding of nitrogen fixation in crop plants, the all-important process by which some plants convert atmospheric nitrogen to a form they and other organisms can use to build proteins.

He was proudest, however, of work that combined his passions for science and social justice, such as groundbreaking research on water pollution caused by industrialized agriculture and a much-cited article that debunked attempts to link race and IQ.

Kohl ran Washington University’s undergraduate research program for many years and was known for his commitment to mentoring nontraditional students.

“He really got to know each student as an individual,” said Alan R. Templeton, the Charles Rebstock Professor Emeritus of Biology. “Even after they were in a lab, he would periodically check up on them. Sometimes the mentoring did not work out, and Danny always took this very seriously and went out of his way to help the student.”

Ed Wise, a former student and 1975 graduate, later wrote, “There are few people in life who are capable of leaving a mark on another’s soul, not to mention on a community of souls, and Danny Kohl is one of those few, gifted men.”

A lifelong political activist, Kohl  participated in the anti-war, nuclear freeze, environmental and civil rights movements.


In 1961, Kohl and a group of civically active St. Louisans formed the Freedom of Residence, Greater St. Louis Committee to promote fair housing for all. An interracial couple sought the committee’s support after being denied the opportunity to buy a suburban house. The case, Jones v. Mayer, ultimately went to the U.S. Supreme Court, ending in a monumental victory for equal rights.

Templeton also recalled Kohl’s advocacy for the people of Times Beach, who learned in 1982 that their town had been contaminated with dioxin. The town was evacuated and demolished.

“I don’t think many people know what a critical and central role Danny played in the Times Beach episode and its resolution,” Templeton said. “He never talked much about himself. He just went on to the next problem and did what he saw as his duty as a citizen.”

Kohl also served as a board member of Prison Performing Arts, acting as a friend, advocate and mentor for several inmates involved in the program, in addition to promoting and raising funds for the organization.

In 2007, Kohl received the Gerry and Bob Virgil Ethic of Service Award from the university’s Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement.

“During the 40 years Daniel has been part of the WUSTL community, he has gone above and beyond his professional responsibilities to engage and help students, friends, neighbors, family members and complete strangers struggling around him,” the award citation read.

Kohl was preceded in death by his son Benjamin H. Kohl. He is survived by Seena B. Kohl, his wife of 66 years; his children, George, Paul, and Martha Kohl; eleven grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. April 9 in the Lakeview Room at The Gatesworth, 1 McKnight Place, St. Louis, Mo., 63124.

In lieu of flowers, memorial donations in Kohl’s memory may be made to Prison Performing Arts, 3547 Olive St., Suite 250, St. Louis, Mo., 63103, or, or to the charity of your choice.

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