June 22, 2015

Biochemistry professor Richard Armstrong remembered

Richard N. Armstrong, Ph.D., professor of Biochemistry and Chemistry, prominent biochemist, journal editor and mentor, died on June 18 after a brief illness. He was 66.

“The path of the just is as the shining light.”

With that verse from Proverbs, Charles “Chuck” Sanders, Ph.D., said goodbye to his friend and colleague Richard N. Armstrong, Ph.D., during a memorial service Monday in Vanderbilt Divinity School’s Benton Chapel.

Richard Armstrong, Ph.D.

Armstrong, professor of Biochemistry and Chemistry, prominent biochemist, journal editor and mentor, died on June 18 after a brief illness. He was 66.

Tears flowed freely as colleagues, friends and Armstrong’s wife, Mary Frances Clark, J.D., described his deep sense of fairness and love of life.

Sanders, professor of Biochemistry and Medicine and the Aileen M. Lange and Annie Mary Lyle Professor of Cardiovascular Research, said his friend believed “everyone has the right to achieve success in life on the basis of their merits … We’re all equal, we all have the same opportunity.”

“Richard cared a lot more about substance than he cared about symbols,” added Lawrence “Larry” Marnett, Ph.D., associate vice chancellor for Research and senior associate dean for Biomedical Sciences.

“How we live our lives is our choice,” said Marnett, the Mary Geddes Stahlman Professor of Cancer Research and University Professor of Biochemistry and Chemistry. “I’m confident Richard lived his life just the way he wanted to.”

A member of the Vanderbilt faculty since 1995, Armstrong was internationally known for his contributions to understanding detoxification enzymes, proteins that break down foreign and potentially harmful chemicals, drugs and other molecules. Among other potential applications, his work could lead to new ways to prevent bacterial resistance to antibiotics.

Armstrong was an elected Fellow of both the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Chemical Society (ACS). Other ACS honors included the Repligen Award for Chemistry of Biological Processes and, in 2014, the Arthur C. Cope Scholar Award.

In 2005, he received the Stanley Cohen Award for Outstanding Contributions to Research from the faculty of the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

Since 2004, Armstrong served as editor-in-chief of Biochemistry, an honor held by only two other scientists since the journal began publishing in 1962. He also held a foreign adjunct professorship at the famed Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden.

Born in Boonville, Missouri, Armstrong received his Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry from Western Illinois University, and his Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry from Marquette University.

He was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Chicago, a staff fellow at the Laboratory of Bioorganic Chemistry at the National Institutes of Health, and a member of the Chemistry faculty at the University of Maryland for 15 years before coming to Vanderbilt.

Representing the many postdoctoral fellow and graduate students Armstrong mentored, Mary Keithly, a chemistry graduate student in his lab, spoke at his memorial service. Another speaker was longtime friend Debra Dunaway-Mariano, Ph.D., professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque.

Others from Vanderbilt who spoke were F. Peter Guengerich, Ph.D., Tadashi Inagami, Ph.D., professor of Biochemistry; Michael Waterman, Ph.D., professor emeritus and former chair of the Department of Biochemistry; and John York, Ph.D., the Natalie Overall Warren Professor of Biochemistry and current department chair.

In addition to his wife of 31 years, Armstrong is survived by two children, Kathryn Grace Armstrong and Andrew Clinton Armstrong, and by many other family members, colleagues and close friends.

Contributions may be made in his memory to “Vanderbilt Biochemistry – Armstrong Fund” and mailed to Vanderbilt Gift & Donor Services, PMB 407727, 2301 Vanderbilt Place, Nashville, Tennessee 37240.