Frederic Middlebrook Richards was born in New York City. He earned his B.S. in 1948 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his Ph.D. in 1952 from Harvard University. He remained at Harvard for 1 year as a research fellow in physical chemistry and then went to the Carlsberg Laboratory in Denmark as well as Cambridge University in England for year-long postdoctoral fellowships. When he returned to the United States, Richards joined the faculty of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, as an assistant professor in Biochemistry. He was eventually promoted to associate professor, professor, Henry Ford II Professor of Molecular Biophysics, and finally Sterling Professor Emeritus of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry. Richards also served as chairman of both the Department of Molecular Biology and Biophysics and the Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale.
Richards' early research at Yale focused on the composition and chemical properties of ribonuclease-S. He eventually solved the structure of the molecule by using x-ray crystallography. He then turned his attention to the problem of protein folding. He was the first to observe that the native structures of globular proteins have a high packing density, and he defined the solvent-accessible surface and the molecular surface of proteins. Richards' later research has been focused on identifying and quantitating the major forces that control protein-folding pathways and that are responsible for specifying native structures.
Richards received many honors, including the Pfizer-Paul Lewis Award in Enzyme Chemistry (1965), the Kai Linderstrom-Lang Prize in Protein Chemistry (1978), the ASBMB-Merck Award (1988), the Protein Society Stein and Moore Award (1988), and election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences. He served on the editorial boards of the Journal of Biological Chemistry, the Journal of Molecular Biology, and Advances in Protein Chemistry. Richards was president of the American Society of Biological Chemists in 1979 and the Biophysical Society in 1972.