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Buchanan, Robert

Published onJul 30, 2021
Buchanan, Robert

(March 27, 1883 – January 31, 1973)

Quick Facts

Known as one of the “big three” at Iowa State College, Buchanan was the first to head the Bacteriology and Industrial Science departments and created the Graduate College.


Buchanan, 1951. Source: University Archives, Iowa State University Library

Robert Buchanan’s impacts on Iowa State were numerous. He was a pallbearer at Bearshear’s funeral as a student, was known as one of the Big Three at Iowa State College with R.K. Bliss and H.H. Kildee.

He was blunt, forthright and demanding in his own work and that of others. His ability to produce was phenomenal and his resume reads like a book of lists: Bacteriology Department (1908 – 1948), Industrial Science (1914-1919), Graduate College (1919-1948), Director of Agriculture and Home Economics Experiment Station (1933-1948), Dean Emeritus and Professor of Special Research (1948). With each success, globally and at home, Buchanan brought acclaim to Iowa State. The college grew from 14 graduate students in 1907 to 875 in 1929. Buchanan felt the graduate work was “sharply limited” to technical fields and basic underlying sciences.

Robert Earle Buchanan was born in Cedar Rapids in 1883 and his interest in nature study was aroused at the age of nine, while attending a one-room country school near Rochester. Like most American boys, he worked during school holidays and saved to go to Iowa State College (ISC), which he entered in 1900. Buchanan began teaching as soon as he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1904, and his research continued long after his retirement. He would finish his MS in 1906 and receive his PhD from the University of Chicago in 1908. In 1910 Buchanan was appointed first head of bacteriology at ISC, and the same year married a botanist, Estelle Fogel, with whom he collaborated in writing the well-known Buchanan & Buchanan's Bacteriology.

Buchanan achieved world renown as a giant in the field of nomenclature. He presided over the International Botanical Congress in 1930 and the Congress of Microbiology in 1936. He chaired the judicial commission of the International Committee on Bacteriological Nomenclature through nine congresses, making Iowa State University one of the world’s foremost libraries on bacteriological classification. His team spent five years updating and creating 10,000 entries in “Bergey’s Manual,” a feat that impressed the world and established the International Code of Nomenclature.

The World Wars had a major impact on his career. Microbiology was of interest not just to scientists, but in warfare. Wartime agricultural standards set by the government told people when to grow, and how much, and following the war world agriculture was in crisis. Buchanan was on a United Nations panel to study food and agriculture problems confronting the United Nations, and he would travel as a member of the U.S. Agricultural Mission to the Middle East and Federal Agriculture Organization’s Agricultural Mission to Greece in 1946.

He was also editor of numerous professional publications on bacteriology, along with the Iowa Journal of Science. In 1940 he was instrumental in getting federal support for agricultural research at Land Grant established experiment stations. In 1962 the graduate dormitory, Buchanan Hall, was named after him. After its removal, a new dormitory was named in his honor.

Buchanan passed away in 1973 and is interred at the Iowa State University Cemetery.

Selections of text republished with permission from Iowans who made a difference: 150 years of agricultural progress by Don Muhm and Virginia Wadsley, published by the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, 1996.

Selected Sources

Robert Buchanan Papers, RS 06/03/11, University Archives, Special Collections, Iowa State University Library, Ames, Iowa.

Anonymous (1965). He looks to the future [a biographical note about Robert Earle Buchanan]. News of Iowa State 17, no. 3

Singleton, Rivers Jr. “Robert Earle Buchanan: An Unappreciated Scientist” Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine 72 (1999), pp. 329-339.

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