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Willham, Richard L.

Published onNov 08, 2021
Willham, Richard L.

(May 4, 1932 – Dec. 31, 2017)

Quick Facts

Willham’s contributions and expertise in animal breeding has resulted in national and international recognition.

A computer cow game that teaches selection principles using performance records in breeding cattle is one of many innovative contributions originating in the brilliant mind of Richard L. Willham. His learning game is widely used, both nationally and internationally.

Born in Hutchinson, Kansas, he graduated with a BS in Animal Husbandry from Oklahoma A & M College in 1954 and received his MS in Animal Breeding from Dr. Lush at Iowa State in 1955. After serving on occupation duty in Korea as a military officer, Richard returned to ISU and completed his PhD in 1960.

At Iowa State University, Willham introduced an undergraduate course titled “Our Livestock Heritage” that was developed from his long-standing interest in the livestock industry’s heritage. A scholar of livestock history, Willham wrote four books and numerous academic papers on this subject. One book, The Legacy of the Stockman, published in 1985 centers on livestock history over 200 centuries.

In 1996, the centennial year of ISU animal husbandry-animal science department, Willham authored A Heritage of Leadership commemorating the event. This book relates important changes and trends in livestock production as well as many of the key academic figures who taught and made important research discoveries on the ISU campus. A prolific writer, Willham also published 107 journal papers and nearly 300 popular articles. Most of these articles and papers were developed out of his research work or his academic links on the ISU campus.

Willham was the professor in charge of beef cattle breeding for ISU. In this capacity he directed a research project involving the development of three lines of Angus and one of Simmental at the school’s cattle farm near Rhodes, Iowa. Another project was an Angus-Simmental cross-breeding study taking place at ISU’s McNay Farm near Albia, Iowa.

One of Willham’s most unusual assignments began in 1959 when he conducted a swine irradiation experiment on an outlying ISU farm for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. Over an eight-year period, 30,000 hogs were exposed to irradiation to determine the effects on progeny of boars exposed to irradiation. He also was in charge of a classic beef cattle-dairy cattle crossbreeding experiment that continued for years at the ISU research facility south of Ankeny, Iowa.

Willham’s expertise in animal breeding resulted in a dozen foreign and overseas trips, including a stint as a guest scholar at Kyoto University in Japan in 1991. The following year he was a lecturer at the sixth National Cattle Show in Oita, Kyushu, Japan. In 1994 he was a featured speaker on livestock production at the Fifth World Congress on Genetics at Guelph, Ontario, Canada.

In addition Willham had an appreciation for what he called “livestock art” —painting, sculptures, posters and other art that features farm and ranch animals. This hobby led to his role as a guest curator of the Centuries of Fascination: Art about Livestock held in 1990 at Brunnier Gallery (now Brunnier Art Museum), and he authored the companion youth and adult catalog by the same title (1990).

Willham was a personable professor who exuded unbridled enthusiasm for a rare blend of the livestock industry and teaching. For example he was proud of the fact that he tutored 32 graduate students who have gone on to work in “responsible positions.” In addition, he spoke glowingly about the contributions made by his ISU colleagues and predecessors whom he respected and admired.

The list of persons admired by Willham includes the beloved late Iowa State agriculture dean H.H. Kildee whom he suggested, “Developed ISC into a leadership role in scientific agriculture using great diplomacy.” Willham added, “He listened, especially to his students.” There are those who might make the same comment about Richard L. Willham.

Richard was born in the dust bowl of 1932. He married the love of his life, Esther B. Burkhart, June 1, 1954, at the First Presbyterian Church of Stillwater, OK. Richard L. Willham passed away at age 89 on December 31, 2017. He is survived by his wife Esther, their daughter Karen Willham Conley and son Oliver Willham.

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


Saddle and Sirloin Club, portrait.

Willham, Richard L. (1961) "Iowa State's Swine Irradiation Project," Iowa Farm Science: Vol. 16 : No. 2 , Article 4.

Willham, Richard Lewis, "Genetic differences in litter size and average litter weight from a polyallel cross of seven breeds of swine " (1960). Retrospective Theses and Dissertations. 2752.

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