Dr. John E. Boynton, a UC Davis alumnus, retired Duke University professor and renowned expert on photosynthesis, has bequeathed a generous gift from his estate to establish a fellowship in honor of his mentor, tomato geneticist Charles M. Rick, Jr.
Boynton passed away last summer at the age of 80 in Silver City, New Mexico, where he lived in retirement.
His gift establishes the Charles Rick Endowed Fellowship in Plant Genetics for Ph.D. students interested in plant molecular genetics or molecular plant breeding. Boynton wanted to make sure that at least one recipient each year receives an award sufficient to cover all the costs of Ph.D. studies in plant genetics.
“I am very pleased to make this gift to further the excellence of UC Davis,” he said in January 2018.
Helene Dillard, dean of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, acknowledged Boynton’s accomplishments and expressed her deep gratitude for Boynton’s selfless tribute to his alma mater.
“John made significant contributions to our understanding of how plants function through his research on the basics of photosynthesis,” she said. “He shared with me how working at UC Davis helped set the stage for his successful career in academia. Thanks to John some of our graduate students studying in the fields he found so fascinating will have the opportunity to carry on his legacy. We are extremely grateful for John’s gift.”
Boynton spent his formative years in Tucson, Arizona, where he graduated from high school in 1956. After studying horticulture and plant breeding as an undergraduate at the University of Arizona, he set his sights on UC Davis. With Rick’s guidance, he focused his graduate work on chloroplasts in tomatoes. His Ph.D. in genetics was awarded in 1966. He served as an NIH Postdoctoral Fellow at UC Davis, and subsequently conducted postdoctoral work at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, and at Stanford University.
In 1968, Boynton joined the faculty of Duke University in North Carolina, where he became a distinguished professor of botany and genetics and worked until his retirement in 2000. Throughout his career much of his work focused on digging deeper into the function and expression of chloroplast genes. He was the first Duke botanist to conduct research at the sub-cellular level with his work on the genetics of organelles.
“Not only does his work have great significance for the understanding of basic biological processes, such as photosynthesis, which involve the chloroplast, but his research also has practical applications,” his botany colleagues wrote in a 1995 letter. “Dr. Boynton has made contributions of pivotal importance in the development of techniques that now permit the introduction of foreign genes into the chloroplast.”
He also was instrumental in setting up the national Chlamydomonas Genetics Center at Duke in 1979, which helped ensure availability of this species for other researchers. Chlamydomonas is a genus of green algae used in research.
Boynton also was passionate about the West. In his teens, he spent summers working at cattle ranches in the eastern Sierra Nevada. He frequently visited Mono Lake while he was a graduate student in Davis and later joined in efforts to fight water diversions from the area. In retirement, he continued to spend his summers at Mono Lake and the rest of the year in New Mexico. Dr. John E. Boynton is thoughtfully remembered in an obituary in the Grant County Beat, the local paper in Silver City.