By Dianna Borsi O’Brien
1917 – 2009
While not a native of Columbia, during his 51 years here, Charles W. Gehrke left his mark on the city, the University of Missouri, and even the moon.
Today, the company he founded with two MU graduates as Analytical Bio-Chemistry (ABC) Laboratories Inc. in 1968 is now part of Eurofins, a global firm. But prior to its 2015 buy out, ABC employed more than 300 people.
The founding of the firm grew directly out of the work of Gehrke and his team of chemists at MU in developing groundbreaking scientific methods to analyze fertilizers as well as a precise way to find amino acids.
His team’s development of a way to analyze materials for amino acids then lead to his involvement in the analysis of the 1969-1972 Apollo mission moon rock samples.
A snowy start
Gehre, 1917-2009, arrived in Columbia during a snowstorm in January of 1949 to take a job as an associate professor of chemistry at the MU. The position included the position as Missouri State Chemist which also meant he headed up the University’s Experiment Station Chemical Laboratories.
As head of the laboratories, he and his team pioneered automating the processing of fertilizer samples. The laboratories were charged by law to analyze all the fertilizer produced in Missouri for quality control purposes, but the methods used were slow and dangerous. Then, as fertilizer use skyrocketed, the laboratories became hopelessly backlogged.
When machines to automate chemical analyses hit the market, Gehrke decided to put them to work analyzing fertilizer, but he didn’t have any of those machines and there weren’t any methods established to use them to analyze fertilizer.
Gehrke negotiated for donations and discounts and put his team to work developing the necessary chemical processes. By the 1970s, his laboratories had developed 10 accredited processes and could process 60 analyses an hour, something which had previously taken a week.
During the same time period, Gehrke’s team developed a patented substance to use the then new gas-liquid chromatograph to analyze substances for amino acids. His team’s methodology was more precise than previous techniques and was instrumental in accurately analyzing the moon rocks returned from the Apollo moon missions and that brought international attention to Columbia.
His work on amino acids and chromatography would also lead him to his later search for cancer biomarkers; his publications continue to be cited.
During his career, he published 270 peer-reviewed articles and after his 1987 retirement from the University of Missouri, he went on to author or edit nine books.
The son of immigrants
Gehrke was the son of German immigrants and a native of Canal Lewisville, a tiny hamlet in southeast Ohio. He earned three degrees from Ohio State University including a bachelor’s of arts in biological sciences, a master’s of science in bacteriology and his doctorate in biochemistry. He married Virginia Horcher Gehrke, who died on their 65th anniversary in 2006. He had three children, Charles Jr., who died in 1982 during a U.S. Navy training flight, Jon Craig, of DesMoines, Iowa, and Susan Gay Gehrke Isaacson, of Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota.
Note: This information was gathered through reporting and interviews with Charles W. Gehrke for the book, “From the Melon Fields to Moon Rocks,” by Dianna Borsi O’Brien, and published in 2017.