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UNM professor, pioneer in biochemistry dies

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Robert Loftfield, a pioneer in the field of biochemistry, a founding faculty member of the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, and a recipient of a “Living Legend” tribute from the school last year, died Sept. 4 in Albuquerque. He was 94.

At a formal dinner event in Zurich in 2005, the well-known Swiss cancer researcher Georg Martz introduced Loftfield as “the most brilliant man to have never won a Nobel Prize,” recalled Loftfield’s daughter, Lore Loftfield De Bower, the dean of arts and humanities at a Cape Cod college.

Martz, she said, went on to explain that “there is no Nobel Prize in biochemistry – which did not exist until Bob invented the field.”

Robert Loftfield

Robert Loftfield.

Dr. Paul Roth, UNM Chancellor for Health Sciences and dean of the UNM School of Medicine, said Loftfield will be “sorely missed.” The growth and success of the School of Medicine, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, “would not have been possible without pioneering and tremendously innovative faculty members like Dr. Loftfield.”

Loftfield brought to New Mexico “a remarkable passion for research and teaching,” Roth said. “While he continued the scholarly investigation that led to many important scientific discoveries, Dr. Loftfield was instrumental in developing the curriculum for training physicians that is still used today, both here at UNM and worldwide.”

Kip Bobroff, lead organizer with Albuquerque Interfaith, and a longtime family friend, said Loftfield “was one of the smartest, most thoughtful and kindest people you would ever meet.” He also called his friend “incredibly curious until the very end of his life and interested in what was going on in science and political and social affairs.”

Loftfield was born in Detroit and grew up in Ohio, said another daughter Ella-Kari Loftfield, a high school history teacher in Rio Rancho. “My dad was the child of immigrants and the first in his family on either side to get a college education.” His mother was from the Black Forest in Germany, and his father was from north of the Arctic Circle in Norway, she said.

“That international influence made him open-minded and quite progressive. You often think of people getting more conservative as they get older. That was not the case with my father. He was progressive in education, politics, social causes and his approach to Christianity and his religion.”

In between his master’s and doctoral degrees in organic and physical organic chemistry, both from Harvard University, Loftfield was drafted into the U.S. Army. He served from 1944-1946 and was attached to the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor organization to the CIA. He worked on a host of national security projects, including the development of invisible ink, Ella-Kari Loftfield said.

During this time he met Ella Bradford at a YWCA dance in Washington, D.C., where he impressed her with his skill at the hambo, a Swedish folk dance, said Loftfield De Bower. Bradford was a civilian cryptographer with the U.S. Army. They married in 1946 and subsequently had 10 children.

After the war, they returned to Massachusetts, where Loftfield worked in medical research and taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard’s medical school and the Marine Biological Laboratory.

“When we were kids our father was just our father,” said Loftfield De Bower. “We didn’t realize he was this genius and we didn’t realize it wasn’t normal to have guests at our home like (American chemist) Linus Pauling, or (English molecular biologist) Francis Crick,” who co-discovered the double helix structure of DNA molecules.

While on sabbatical in 1952-1953 at the Nobel Medical Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, “my father’s interests changed and he went from being a chemist to being a biochemist,” someone who studies the chemical processes and chemical transformations in living organisms, she said.

In 1964, Loftfield accepted a job at the newly created UNM School of Medicine. He served as a professor of biochemistry from 1964-1989 and chaired the Department of Biochemistry from 1964-1971 and again from 1978-1989.

Loftfield is survived by five sons and five daughters, 26 grandchildren and 22 great-grandchildren. His wife, Ella Bradford Loftfield, died in 1990. The couple had been married nearly 45 years.

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