Friends, colleagues, and family mourn the passing of Thomas J. Mabry, PhD, a natural products chemist and biologist. He was 83 years old. Mabry spent his career in the department of botany at the University of Texas – Austin (UT), working from 1962 until his retirement as professor emeritus in 2006. During his tenure, Mabry mentored over 70 graduate students for both master’s and doctoral degrees.
“Tom will always be remembered by the scientific community for his cutting-edge contributions to chemotaxonomy, structural elucidation of important medicinal and poisonous plant natural products, and insights into the biochemistry and evolution of the very unique pigments known as the betalains,” wrote Eloy Rodriguez, PhD, who earned his doctorate under Mabry’s supervision (email to M. Blumenthal, December 21, 2015). Mabry’s research group was the first to identify the structures of various natural compounds known as betalains. These plant pigments are present in beets (Beta vulgaris, Chenopodiaceae), cacti (Opuntia spp., Cactaceae), and bougainvillea (Bougainvillea spp., Nyctaginaceae), but they are wholly separate from red-purple-blue anthocyanins.
Mabry was born in Commerce, Texas, and grew up on a farm. After graduating as his high school’s valedictorian, he attended East Texas State College (now a part of the Texas A&M University system) and earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemistry. In between earning his master’s and his doctorate, he served two years in the Air Force as a commissioned research chemist. In 1956, he earned his doctorate in organic chemistry from Rice University in Houston. Among his numerous professional and organizational affiliations, Mabry served on the Advisory Board of the American Botanical Council (ABC).
During Mabry’s postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Zurich’s Organic Chemistry Institute, he worked under the supervision of Professor Andre Dreiding to determine the structure of betanin, which at the time was thought to be an anthocyanin pigment in red beets. Dreiding’s group proved otherwise, recognizing a completely new class of pigments: the betalains.1
After Mabry joined the faculty at UT, he dedicated himself to both his students and his research. Shortly after, in 1966, he organized the Phytochemical Society of North America and served as its first president. Maureen Bonness, PhD, another doctoral student of Mabry’s, recalled that he was awarded numerous grants and always made sure that his students had the funds they required (email to M. Blumenthal, January 2, 2016). “Tom sincerely cared about everyone in his group,” she wrote. “We were the lucky ones, to be in the Tom Mabry group.”
“I will always remember Tom for his grand generosity, his outstanding mentorship, and his willingness to find ways to support the large number of graduate students in his laboratory,” wrote Rodriguez. “Many of the former students were, and are still, outstanding scientists in their respective fields.”
“I am very fortunate and grateful for having crossed paths with Tom early in my life,” wrote Barbara Timmermann, PhD, ABC Advisory Board member and Distinguished Professor at the University of Kansas (email to M. Blumenthal, January 21, 2016). “I learned a great deal from his teachings, perennial enthusiasm, and willingness to chart new territories in the interface of chemistry and botany…. Always generous with his time and ideas, he led by example and I’m glad I listened to him. When I thanked Tom on graduation day for giving me wings and teaching me how to fly, he replied simply, ‘Pass it on,’ and this I keep trying.”
Mabry served as the chair of the botany department at UT from 1980-1986, and under his leadership, it gained national recognition and acclaim. “Tom was a major force in the botany department at UT and, with an array of gifted colleagues, ensured the department’s status as the best botany department in the country until it was reorganized out of existence,” wrote Beryl Simpson, PhD, C.L. Lundell Professor of Systematic Botany at UT, and author of a leading textbook, Economic Botany: Plants in Our World (email to M. Blumenthal, December 22, 2015). “He was a major factor in my deciding to join the faculty.”
The University of Texas honored Mabry’s achievements and leadership by appointing him as a Jack C. Wrather Centennial Endowed Fellow at the university’s IC2 Institute in 1986, by bestowing upon him the UT-Austin Graduate School’s Outstanding Doctoral Teaching Award in 1991, and, upon his retirement, by creating the Professor Tom J. Mabry Endowed Excellence Fund in Phytochemistry and Plant Biology. Ten years later, in 2001, Mabry received the Norman R. Farnsworth Research Achievement Award from the American Society of Pharmacognosy. During his acceptance speech, Mabry said:
I proudly report that my role in complex biological chemistry investigations, and my stimulating interactions with a large number of fascinating colleagues and special friends continue still today to be a great, exhilarating, 40-year ride! It is written that a man is not old until regrets take the place of dreams. Well, I’m pleased to start each sunrise with dreams filled with love and hope; happily, a few of the dreams are even realistic. Just as in my weekly card game with seven good friends, I urge each new day to cut the cards, deal me a hand, and let us play!
In addition to these honors, Mabry received numerous accolades, awards, and grants over his lengthy career: a Guggenheim Fellowship at the University of Freiburg, Germany; the Alexander von Humboldt Senior Scientist Award for research with Professor Dietmar Behnke at the University of Heidelberg, Germany; the American Chemical Society Award for the Application of Chemistry to Food and Agriculture; and the Pergamon Prize from the journal Phytochemistry.
“Tom figured out how to make things happen: how to be successful within phytochemical research, within scientific publishing, within academia, within the vagaries of funding, and across continents,” wrote Bonness. “The nexus was his cultivation of a prodigious network of people who were not only collaborators, but also friends. All this was done with a certain gusto, calculated, yet willing to take risks, and a hint of mischievousness.”
Memorial services for Mabry were held in Austin on December 29, 2015. He is survived by his wife, Helga Johanna Humm Mabry; daughter, Michele Mabry Cooley; son, Patrick Thomas Mabry; three grandchildren; and hundreds of deeply grateful mentees, both official and otherwise.
“The legacy of Tom Mabry will live on forever in his many books, publications, assays, and his students,” Rodriguez concluded. “I can truly say that Tom will be greatly missed by family and the world community, and most especially by a former young undergraduate.”
- Mabry JT. Selected topics from forty years of natural products research: betalains to flavonoids, antiviral proteins, and neurotoxic nonprotein amino acids. J Nat Prod. 2001;64(12):1596-1604.