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


Christopher King Mathews was born in 1937 in New York City. His father, a physician, moved the family to Bridgeport, Connecticut early on in Mathews' life. During and after the war years, the family moved back and forth between Connecticut and Seattle before finally settling in Olympia, Washington in 1949. A strong student, Mathews was interested in science from an early age and was also active in scouting, ultimately attaining the rank of Eagle Scout. He completed his high school education in Olympia and, in 1954, entered the undergraduate Chemistry program at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.

After completing his Reed education in 1958, Mathews moved on to the doctoral program in Biochemistry at the University of Washington, where he was supported by a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship. While there he met and married Catherine Zitcer, a fellow Biochemistry student, and the couple soon became parents to their first child. Mathews began publishing while at Washington as well, authoring a paper, "Enzymatic Preparation of the l,L-Diastereoisomer of Tetrahydrofolic Acid," that received a particularly positive response from the biochemistry community.

In 1962 Mathews completed his Ph.D. and accepted a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania where, with the help of his mentor Seymour S. Cohen, he began applying biochemical ideas to work in genetics. In 1963 Mathews accepted a position as Assistant Professor of Biology at Yale University and in 1967 he moved to the University of Arizona where he attained a full professorship in the Biochemistry Department of the College of Medicine. It was at Arizona that Mathews also authored his first book, Bacteriophage Biochemistry, which was published in 1971.

In 1978 Mathews returned to the northwest as professor and chairman of the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at Oregon State University. There, he facilitated the growth of the department, continued his own research on enzymatic reactions and published several books on biochemistry. One of these was a highly successful textbook, Biochemistry, co-authored with fellow OSU biochemist Ken Van Holde, that went through three editions over the course of a decade.

Mathews also helped to found OSU's Center for Gene Research, which he directed for a year, and was closely involved with the reestablishment of the Linus Pauling Institute, once it had made the move from its former home in the San Francisco Bay Area to the OSU campus. Mathews likewise participated in more than two dozen committees during his OSU years, all while continuing to teach regularly and provide direct mentorship for graduate and postdoctoral students. Over the course of his career, Mathews supervised the work of thirty-five Ph.D. candidates.

In 1991 Mathews was named an OSU Distinguished Professor and in 2002, after twenty-four years of service to OSU, Mathews retired from his position as department chairman, a change which allowed him to renew his efforts in the laboratory. Today, Mathews is internationally recognized as a major contributor to the field of biochemistry with an emphasis on enzymology, virology, and genetics. In particular, Mathews has received significant attention for his work with nucleotide and coenzyme metabolism, DNA synthesis and replication, and nucleic acid enzymology.