By Mary Ellen Sanders and Colin Hill
We all suffered a devastating loss this past Saturday with the death of Prof. Todd Klaenhammer, aged 69.
Todd was a larger-than-life figure in the scientific field of genetics of lactic acid bacteria. Todd’s 38-year career started at the age of 26, when he joined North Carolina State University as an assistant professor in 1978. His research and teaching awards are too numerous to count, as the phrase goes, but of special note was his election in 2001 to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Later he also received the O. Max Gardner award, given to one researcher in the North Carolina University system “who has made the greatest contribution to the welfare of the human race.”
For those of us fortunate enough to work closely with him, it was a privilege to witness his mind at work, making those leaps in understanding in real time as he furiously forged ahead of the data while designing strategies to test his theories. He saw the potential for probiotics when few others were interested. He led the field in phage resistance, in bacteriocin research, and in basic lactic acid bacterial genetics. When many preferred to study the more genetically accessible lactococci he went with the much more recalcitrant lactobacilli. The discoveries he made were all the more notable because he always maintained a relatively small laboratory group, not moving to the large team-based approaches that are more common today. He was a fierce competitor, but was warm and generous when his friends and rivals made scientific advances. His willingness to take on challenges was truly inspirational, and his scientific intellect was the rock-solid foundation for everything he achieved in a legendary career.
As a founding board member for ISAPP, serving on the board from 2002 to 2016, Todd helped shape ISAPP’s development. He had a great influence on ISAPP leadership, nudging Prof. Colin Hill to serve as president and nominating Prof. Sarah Lebeer to the board. He, along with Prof. Jeff Gordon, organized the National Academy of Sciences Sackler Symposium “Microbes & Health” in conjunction with the 2009 ISAPP annual meeting at the Beckman Center in Irvine CA. Later, one of ISAPP’s finest moments was the gala dinner during the 2015 ISAPP meeting in Washington DC, which Todd hosted at the National Academy of Sciences Great Hall.
Todd seemed especially happy when he was able to help young scientists succeed in science. His “work hard, play hard” ethic and his fierce dedication made positions in his lab coveted. Competition for a space in his lab became steeper as the years went by. The best and the brightest students and postdocs found their way to his lab over the years, and he was extremely proud of all that those in his lab accomplished.
Todd always welcomed the opportunity to connect with his many colleagues and friends. He was rarely without a story to share – watching his Ford Bronco start to sink into the lake with his cherished golden retriever paddling in the back was a favorite. The listening throng always radiated congeniality. He could work a crowd.
Saying goodbye to Todd will be hard for so many of us across the globe. We will miss his good humor, his friendship, his constant encouragement of others to excel, and his hustle to make sure they did.
Rest in peace, Todd. We will try to continue to make you proud.
Mary Ellen Sanders was a graduate student in the Klaenhnammer lab from 1978-1983. Colin Hill was a postdoc in the Klaenhammer lab from 1988-1990.
Read more about Todd Klaenhammer’s life and career: