The Oregon State University Sesquicentennial Oral History Project

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Chris Mathews Oral History Interview

Life history interview conducted by Chris Petersen.

September 2, 2011


“The Reflections of an Influential Biochemist, Administrator and Textbook Author”  September 2, 2011  Location: Valley Library, Oregon State University.  Listen to Audio | Download Transcript (PDF)

In the interview, Mathews describes his family background and upbringing on two different coasts, his early interest in science and his particular infatuation with ornithology, his parents' backgrounds and sisters' lives, and his youthful involvement in scouting. From there he details his high school experience in Olympia, Washington and his decision to conduct undergraduate studies in Chemistry at Reed College. In reflecting on his undergraduate years, Mathews describes the climate at Reed in the mid-1950s, the evolution of his scientific interests, and his encounters with Linus Pauling as well as Pauling's youngest son, Crellin, who was also attending Reed.

Next, Mathews discusses his graduate education at the University of Washington, outlining his decision to move to Seattle and the research that he pursued there. Mathews also recounts his meeting and marrying Catherine Zitcer as well as becoming a father while working toward his doctorate. From there, Mathews reflects on his post-doctoral work at the University of Pennsylvania, during which time he collaborated with Seymour Cohen - who would become an important mentor - on the stimulation of metabolic pathways through virus infection.

Mathews' first academic appointment at Yale University is the next subject of the interview. He describes his arrival at Yale and the process of setting up his laboratory, recounts the research that he conducted (a continuation of his post-doctoral work), and notes the aspects of Yale's institutional culture that ultimately led him to look elsewhere as he continued his career. Mathews then recalls his subsequent decision to relocate to the University of Arizona, the new types of duties that he took on as a professor in Arizona's medical school, and the contours of his research during that time, including work on enzymology and the regulation of DNA precursors. He also touches upon his positive experience of the culture of the American southwest, a sabbatical that he took to the University of California, San Diego in 1973, and his perspective on various luminaries from the early study of DNA, including his mentor Seymour Cohen and Cohen's major professor, Erwin Chargaff.

A significant portion of the interview is devoted to Mathews' recollections of his years at Oregon State University. He describes his decision to move to OSU after eleven years at Arizona, the priorities that he established as chair of Biochemistry & Biophysics, his idea for creating a Center for Gene Research at the university, and the growth of the center in subsequent years. He likewise recounts his involvement with OSU's Environmental Health Science Center, the role that he played in helping establish the Linus Pauling Institute on the OSU campus, and his involvement with the planning of OSU's Agricultural and Life Science Building. Mathews also details the small shifts that occurred in his research on deoxynucleotide and DNA precursor enzymology and biochemistry during his Oregon State tenure.

As the session nears its end, Mathews shares the story of his highly successful textbook, Biochemistry, which he wrote with another OSU biochemist, Ken Van Holde, and first published in 1990. He recalls the initial idea for the book, the process by which it was written, and the acclaim that it received as it moved through three editions. The interview concludes with Mathews' thoughts on points of pride looking back, a lingering question that he still has concerning a career that he could have pursued in medicine, and the satisfaction that he has taken at the paths that his children have chosen in life.