In Memoriam

In memoriam: Bacon Ke

Christian McDonald
By Christian McDonald
June 10, 2024

Bacon Ke, a physical chemist and pioneer in the field of photochemistry of photosynthesis, died May 20, 2022, in San Francisco, California. He was 101 years old and had been a member of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology since 1968. The society only recently learned of his death.

Bacon Ke

Ke was born July 26, 1920, in Hankou, Hubei Province, China. Interested in pursuing studies in chemistry, he completed a specialization in physical chemistry in 1943 at Tongji University in Shanghai; he earned a second bachelor’s degree in biology at Wuhan University in 1945. He continued his graduate studies in the United States, where he received his Ph.D. in chemistry from Wayne State University in 1959. He went on to work at the Charles F. Kettering Research Laboratory in Ohio.

For his lifelong study of photosynthesis, Ke received widespread recognition within this research community of scientists. He was part of a group that identified the electron acceptor of Photosystem I, or PSI. He was also instrumental in leading a team of scientists who identified the extinction coefficient of the reaction center of PSI known as P700. 

Ke was known as distinguished instrumentalist in his field. With research colleagues R.W. Treharne and C. McKibben, he developed a kinetic spectrophotometer, which had the capability to detect and record incredibly small changes in electron transfer intermediates in samples undergoing photosynthesis when exposed to light. In addition to his time in the Kettering lab, he also conducted research at the Standard Oil Company and Amoco Chemical.

Ke was an author of multiple key textbooks within the photosynthesis discipline. After many years conducting key experiments in the field, he retired first to Japan, his wife’s homeland, where he wrote his book “Photosynthesis” in Chinese. He later moved to San Francisco, where he continued to teach graduate students. The chemistry department at Wayne State established an undergraduate scholarship in his name. 

In a 2021 biographical article in the journal Photosynthesis Research, several colleagues wrote, “To us, Bacon Ke has been an extremely thorough, open, caring, diligent and focused scientist … he was often a tough demanding mentor and sometimes this did not go well with some of the juniors; however, he meant well for them and supported them.”

Ke’s wife of 60 years, Keiko Mayama Ke, died in 2017.

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Christian McDonald
Christian McDonald

Christian McDonald is a Ph.D. candidate in microbiology and immunology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

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