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Frey, Kenneth John

Published onJul 30, 2021
Frey, Kenneth John

(March 23, 1923 – July 14, 2013)

Quick Facts

In the quest for genetic resistance to pathogens, Iowa State professor Frey led the way in studying Avena sterilis, a wild oat species.



Kenneth John Frey was an agronomist and crop breeder and was born in Kalomo, Michigan, a rural township with fewer than 2,000 residents in Eaton County. The son of John Frey and Alfrieda (Meyers) Frey, Kenneth grew up on their farm and attended Cogsdill School, then one room with grades one through eight in Vermontville, Eaton County’s principal town. He earned a BS in field crops in 1944 and an MS in crop breeding in 1945 from Michigan State University in East Lansing. Moving to Ames, Iowa, Frey received a PhD in agronomy from Iowa State College (ISC, now Iowa State University) in 1948, after which he taught and conducted research for five years at Michigan State University’s Department of Farm Crops. In 1953 he returned to Iowa State, where he served the Agronomy Department through retirement in 1993 and post-retirement until 2001.

Frey devoted his research to oats (Avena sativa), a grain whose seeds have fed humans and animals for roughly the past 4,000 years. The sixth most widely grown crop and the grain occupying the third most acreage in the United States, oats are the pride of Quaker Oats Company in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Versatile as food, feed, and forage, oats occupied roughly 115,000 acres in Iowa in 2017.

During a career that spanned nearly half a century, Frey authored or coauthored more than 200 publications, most on basic or applied oat genetics. He helped pioneer the study of artificial mutagenesis, the deliberate production of mutations, in an effort to produce desirable traits in oats. Wanting to combat diseases, Frey induced mutations in oats in hopes of deriving varieties resistant to one or more pathogens.

When he began this work in the 1950s, many agronomists and breeders thought in terms of single genes, believing that the solution was to find a single gene in a plant that conferred resistance to a pathogen. In this way, gene by gene, scientists might identify all those that protected an organism, a plant in this case, from nature’s aggregate of pathogens.

Frey was among the first to understand that the search for this type of resistance (monogenetic) had limited utility because some pathogens acted along multiple pathways, requiring not one but several genes (polygenetic) to confer full resistance. Moreover, an organism that had a single resistant gene would become vulnerable to a pathogen that had a single mutation to overcome that resistance. In other words, reliance on monogenetic resistance condemned scientists to searching continually for new sources of resistance to defeat ever evolving pathogens. But polygenetic resistance required a pathogen to evolve as many mutations as an organism had resistant genes, a more complicated, long, and difficult task. That is, polygenetic resistance offered more durable, long lasting resistance against a pathogen.

In the quest for genetic resistance to pathogens, Frey led the way in studying Avena sterilis, a wild oat species. Going beyond diseases, he identified in this species genes that improved other qualities in oats, notably content of proteins and their amino acids. As a breeder, Frey crossed Avena sterilis with oat varieties to derive new cultivars with better pathogen resistance, proteins, and amino acids than the varieties then in cultivation. These new cultivars improved agriculture in Iowa, the United States, and the world.

Always on the hunt for improvements, Frey pioneered the culture of experimental varieties on unusually small plots of land (microplots) to increase the number of varieties he could test per unit land. This economy allowed him to evaluate more varieties per year than other breeders could on their conventional plots. Such efficiencies made Frey an especially productive breeder. Over time, breeders worldwide have adapted his microplots.

During his career, Frey released seventeen new cultivars for Iowa and the rest of the Midwest. Others are in preparation. As an educator, he mentored more than one hundred Master’s and doctoral students, encouraging women to pursue careers in agronomy and plant breeding.

Frey’s successes elevated him to direct Iowa State’s Oat Breeding Project and to become George Curtis Distinguished Professor in 1970. Recipient of the Iowa State University Distinguished Alumni award, he was president of the Crop Science Society in 1980 and 1981 and the American Society of Agronomy in 1983 and 1984, both in Madison, Wisconsin. In 1989 Frey convened the university’s first International Crop Science Congress.

Other honors included the National Council of Commercial Plant Breeders’ Genetics and Plant Breeding Award in 1982, the Dekalb-Pfizer Crop Science Distinguished Career Award in 1986, the Iowa Science Medal in 1989, and the Henry Wallace Award for Distinguished Service to Agriculture in 1990. The Kenneth Frey Endowed Chair in Agronomy, created by Iowa State University in 2007, honors his memory.

On the world stage, Frey has served as consultant to research institutes in Mexico, the Philippines, and India and to the governments of Malaysia and Norway. As visiting professor, he has served universities in Egypt, Sweden, Germany, Canada, and the former Yugoslavia (now Serbia, Montenegro, Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, and Kosovo).

As a student at Michigan State, Frey met Ann Dunlap, who would become his wife of sixty-eight years. The two, living within walking distance of Iowa State’s campus, were active on it and in the larger community of Ames. Moving in 1997 to Green Hills Retirement Community in Ames, the Freys visited Australia, India, Japan, Norway, and Athens, Georgia. Predeceased by Ann earlier in 2013, Kenneth Frey died at Green Hills. Three children and two grandchildren survive.

Selected Sources

Kenneth Frey papers, Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development Records, RS 6/1/12, Iowa State University Library, Special Collections and University Archives.

From the Oat Newsletter, Volume 37, 1986: “Kenneth J. Frey, Award for Distinguished Service to Oat Improvement.”

Obituaries: “Kenneth Frey,” Des Moines Register, July 17-21, 2013.

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