Abigail A. Salyers

It is with sadness that the MBL shares the news of the death of Dr. Abigail A. Salyers, who directed the MBL’s Microbial Diversity course from 1995 to 1999.  Dr. Salyers passed away on November 6, 2013.  The MBL flag will be lowered in her honor.    An obituary follows is below

Abigail A. Salyers died at 11:56 PM  in Urbana, Illinois, Wednesday, November 6, 2013 at the age of 70.  She was known worldwide as a research scientist, author and professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Abigail attracted students from all over Illinois and the world.  They appreciated her mastery of science, her intellect, her skills as a lecturer, mentor, and her unique sense of humor.

Abigail was born on December 24, 1942 in Louisville, KY to Robert K. and Loretta S. Salyers.  Survivors include her life partner Jeffrey F. Gardner of Champaign, IL;  daughter Georgia E. Will of Seal Beach, CA;  brother Robert K. Salyers, of Louisville, KY; and sister Martha J. Salyers, of Ashville, NC.

Abigail began at Illinois in 1978 after an undergraduate degree in Mathematics (Phi Beta Kappa) in 1963 and a Ph.D. in Nuclear Physics in 1969 from George Washington University, Washington, D.C.   After four years of teaching, research and tenure at St. Mary’s College in Maryland she switched fields by taking courses in Biochemistry and Microbiology and secured a second post-doctorate position in Biochemistry and Microbiology from Virginia Polytechnical Institute.  She studied, taught and did research at VPI from 1973 to 1978.

She became the first female tenured professor in Microbiology at Illinois in 1983 and a full professor in 1988.  While at Illinois, Abigail was named a University Scholar, Faculty Member of the Year in the College of Medicine, a Member of the Center for Advanced Study and an Affiliate in the Institute for Genomic Biology.  She received the Pasteur Award for Research and Teaching, the All-Campus Award for Excellence in Teaching in the University of Illinois Medical School and the Golden Apple Award for Medical School Teaching on three occasions.  She was named the G.William Arends Professor in Molecular and Cellular Biology from 2004 until she retired in 2012.

Among the books she authored are Bacterial Pathogenesis:  A Molecular Approach, (by A. A. Salyers and Dixie Witt) first published in 1994 and now in its Third Edition.    Bacterial Resistance to Antimicrobials, (by A.A. Salyers and co-authors) first published in 2002 and is now in its Second Edition.  Revenge of the Microbes, (by A.A. Salyers and D. Witt) was published by 2005.  It was a popular treatment of the latest scientific information in the fields of microbial pathegenesis and antibiotic resistance.  It was intended for a broad audience.

Abigail was assisted in her research and publications by Research Associates Nadja B. Shoemaker, Gui Wang and over 30 Graduate Students working on their Ph.D.s and Masters Degrees in Microbiology at Illinois.  Her 5 books, over 200 peer-reviewed research articles, reviews and chapters in books edited by others, were read by fellow microbiologists and biochemists everywhere.   Her papers were cited widely (received over 5000 citations) by other scientists.

Abigail was President of the 40,000 member American Society for Microbiology in 2001-2002.  Her research was supported by the Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health.  In recognition of her standing in the scientific community she served several terms as a member of  National Institutes of Health panels that reviewed research grants.  She was awarded an an honorary Doctorate from ETH University in Zurich, Switzerland in 2001.  One of Abigail’s main interests was the diversity of microorganisms on the planet.  She was Co-Director of the Microbial Diversity Summer Course at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA for the summers of 1995-1999.  Abigail and her co-director, Ed Ledbetter, modernized the course. The course was extremely popular and attracted graduate students and even university faculty members with a wide range of backgrounds from all over the world.  Students performed field work to enrich for and to islolate a diverse array of microorganisms.  They also used state of the art laboratory technology to study the biochemistry and genetics of the microorganisms they isolated from the field.

Abigail was a committed teacher and taught classes in both Liberal Arts and Sciences and in the Medical School at the University of Illinois. She was awarded the 2009 National Graduate Teacher Award in Microbiology.  She was also committed to educating the public.  For example, she met with local postal workers to educate them about the risks of anthrax during the alarm in 2001.

When asked about her own most influential teacher in an interview at an ASM meeting, Abigail surprised her radio questioner by saying it was a Wakefield High School (Arlington, Va.) English teacher.  Mrs. Baker kept Abigail from being kicked out of school for being pregnant and helped her get into college.  At that time, pregnant teenage girls were not often accepted by college administrators.

Memorials may be directed to the Development Office at the Marine Biological Laboratory, 7 MBL Street, Woods Hole, MA 02543 to establish an endowed lectureship or student scholarship for the Microbial Diversity Course in her name.