Ralph S. Wolfe

Early Life

Ralph S. Wolfe

Ralph Stoner Wolfe was born July 18, 1921 in New Windsor, Maryland. His father taught at Blue Ridge College, and then at Bridgewater College. Wolfe became interested in small college teaching, and he admits that “I liked the aspect of teaching that you got three months off in the summer…as a teenager this greatly appealed to me because you got the best time of the year off to do what you wanted” (R. Wolfe, personal communication, March 9, 2018). Wolfe attended Bridgewater College and graduated in 1942 with a Bachelor’s in Biology.

Wolfe attended the University of Pennsylvania after persuasion from a friend since only a Master’s Degree was needed to teach at a college. He began in a botany track, but under the guidance of Dr. Schramm, he took up a course in Bacteriology, “and of course that was it. I mean, watching those little things swim around was great” (R. Wolfe, personal communication, March 9, 2018).

After getting his masters in Bacteriology, Wolfe worked at a laboratory. Wolfe was then swayed to return to the University of Pennsylvania for a PhD program, during which he cultivated his love for research. He graduated with a PhD in Bacteriology in 1953.

At the University of Illinois

Ralph S. Wolfe presenting
Sept. 24, 2010 Advances in Microbial Ecophysiology and Biochemistry Symposium

After doing research related to coenzymes during his PhD, Dr. Wolfe accepted a position as Associate Professor in the Department of Bacteriology, at the University of Illinois in 1953. He then attended a lecture given by Dr. Cornelius Van Niel at Stanford University and was introduced to unfamiliar microorganisms, which prompted him to create Microbiology 309 and 409.

Aside from his teaching, Dr. Wolfe began researching one of these organisms which were thought to grow by oxidizing ethanol to acetate, Methanobacterium omelinskii. The work in studying this culture led to Dr. Wolfe’s discovery of Coenzyme M (CoM), which acted as a terminal methyl carrier on the Methanobacterium M.o.H.

Once the structure of CoM was determined, this became a segue to a discovery of many coenzymes which were specific to these methanogens. In order to perform these experiments, Dr. Wolfe perfected the mechanism of isolating and culturing these organisms, which became a monumental technique in ultimately identifying them as archaea.

Ralph S. Wolfe

His other achievements include: Isolation and characterization of the first Acetobacterium; development of the first archaeal cell-free extract for methyl formation; and pioneered the studies of the microbial biochemistry of methanogenesis.

Dr. Wolfe has received many prestigious awards such as the Abbott Lifetime Achievement (1996), the Selman Waksman Award (1995), the Alexander von Humboldt Senior Award (1984), Pasteur Award (1974), and the Carski Foundation Distinguished Teaching Award (1971). He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences (1981), the American Academy of Arts and Science (1981) and an honorary membership in the American Society for Microbiology (1995). He received Emeritus status at the University of Illinois in 1991.

In 2015, Dr Ralph Wolfe finalized “History of the Department of Microbiology 1868 – 2009” which is an extensive paper documenting the chronological events which took place in the department between those dates. This is a unique achievement which showcases his dedication to the department and university.

Dr. Wolfe passed away in March 2019.

In Dr. Wolfe’s own words from his history of the department, “I joined the Department in 1953, and my recounting of the Department’s history includes personal observations as well as anecdotes told to me by H. O. Halvorson and others. Later I realized what a unique experience it had been to join a first-class department, and I resolved to play a role in maintaining its research stature.”

– Chemical Life Science Lab – This is where Dr. Wolf’s office was located.


Chung, K-T,. Varel, V. (1998, September 25) Ralph S. Wolfe 1921 Pioneer of Biochemistry of Methanogenesis. Anaerobe, 4(5), 205-208.  doi: https://doi.org/10.1006/anae.1998.0169

John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. (2017). Ralph Stoner Wolfe. Retrieved from https://www.gf.org/fellows/all-fellows/ralph-stoner-wolfe/

Max-Planck-Institut fur Marine Mikrobiologie. (n.d.). 24.09.2010 Advances in Microbial Ecophysiology and Biochemistry – Symposium. Retrieved from https://www.mpi-bremen.de/Advances-in-Microbial-Ecophysiology-and-Biochemistry-Symposium.html  (Image)

Wolfe, R. (2015, June). History of the Department of Microbiology 1868 – 2009. Retrieved from: https://mcb.illinois.edu/departments/microbiology/downloads/history_of_microbiology_at_illinois.pdf

Contributors: Veronica Boron