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Long-life learner

By March 15, 2022September 16th, 2023No Comments

By Allison Campbell-Jensen

Robert G McKinnell with wife Bev and Japanese award.

Dr. Bob with wife Beverly and an award from a member of the Japanese Imperial Family.

Call him Dr. McKinnell, if you like, or Dr. Bob, if you know him well. Or, if you are Japanese, you could call him ロバート G. マッキンネル (pronounced Robāto G. Makkinneru in spoken Japanese). That’s the name on the award plaque behind him, which he received from a member of the Japanese Imperial Family, His Imperial Highness Prince Masahito.

His character, commitment, and caring foster deep feelings among colleagues.

“You learn a lot from him, and he clearly wants to learn from you,” says Lois Hendrickson, Curator of the Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine, where he has had a small office for years. “It’s a great basis for a mentor relationship.”

In his will, besides taking care of his own family, McKinnell names three organizations as beneficiaries: his church, his undergraduate college, and the University of Minnesota Libraries.

“I wanted to remember the Wangensteen because the library is so special,” McKinnell says, “and the people are so special.”

Fascinated by frogs

Leopard frogs may have brought McKinnell to Minnesota; his work with their relatively large eggs established his reputation in a field popularly called cloning. His scientific career is outlined in his College of Biological Sciences bio.

Dr. Bob served in the U.S. Navy during WWII and again during the Korean conflict. More than his brawn, however, he was valued for his brainpower. The Navy sent him to Notre Dame, where he received his Ensign’s commission and earned a bachelor’s degree of Naval Sciences. These days, he can also talk about one of his duties kept under wraps for decades: McKinnell also was a cryptographer.

Once he returned to the States and resumed his education, he earned a B.S. in biology from Drury College in Springfield, Missouri, not far from his parents’ home.

A friend said to him, after graduation, “I’m going to go on a field trip and collect frogs. You want to come?”

“Sure,” McKinnell said, and a great love between a scientist and his model animal, the Leopard Frog, was born.

After earning his Ph.D., he worked at a cancer center in Pennsylvania and then established a lab at Tulane University (he met his wife in New Orleans) before arriving at the University of Minnesota in 1970 to teach and do research in the then-Zoology Department.

Like to know more details? Drop him an email. If he’s not too busy completing his book on the history of cancer, he’ll offer a tale or two from his decades of experiences.

‘Natural-born storyteller’

Says Emily Beck, Assistant Curator of the Wangensteen Library: “Dr. Bob is a natural-born storyteller.” Moreover, she and Hendrickson welcomed his regular presence partly because of his kindness: “He was very conscientious that he was a guest in your space.” Interested in interacting yet not interrupting fellow scholars in their research, he has another plus, says Beck. “He’s a feminist.”

His mother went to college, which was somewhat unusual for women of that era. And he continues to have great love and respect for his late wife Beverly, who was a leader in the Minnesota League of Women Voters.

In a phrase, he’s kept up with the times. “He’s not a person who has an opinion leftover from 20 years ago,” Hendrickson adds.

What is Dr. Bob up to lately?

Robert G. McKinnell with a French translation of one of his seminal works on cloning.

Robert G. McKinnell with a French translation of one of his seminal works on cloning.

McKinnell continues to be an active scholar. In the Health Sciences Library, Evening Supervisor Melissa Aho cherishes her ongoing working friendship with Dr. Bob.

“He is adorable,” she says. “He’s 95 and he’s still going.” Aho said she talks with Dr. Bob about books online and visited him last summer, arriving shortly after had finished mowing his lawn. After she expressed her feeling that McKinnell was getting a little old for that, he disagreed. He likes to stay active. And he likes to stay in touch with people like Aho.

“Melissa Aho will stand on her head to get me an illustration in the public domain,” McKinnell says. She says: “I’ve done a lot of searches for him. I’ve ordered books to backtrack where the image is from, and who owns the copyright.”

Another Libraries staffer remembers his exchanges with McKinnell with appreciation, too.

“We slowly developed this relationship where I was able to deliver for him, consistently,” says Del Reed, who recently retired after 30+ years serving as a reference librarian in the Bio-Medical Library, now known as the Health Sciences Library.

“If he saw me in my office, he would come there, instead of to the reference desk,” Reed adds. “He would do the same thing with Melissa Aho.”


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