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2020’s honorary degree recipient: 102-year-old Sherret S. Chase

May 24, 2021

A year ago, commencement ceremony plans were disrupted by the pandemic, but that didn’t stop NIU from conferring an honorary doctorate degree to a centenarian for his groundbreaking work in agriculture.

Sherret Chase was the recipient of an honorary doctorate degree  in 2020 from Northern Illinois University.

The life’s work of 102-year-old Sherret S. Chase, Ph.D., has been in development of techniques in plant breeding via haploids, doubled haploid and hybrids.

“His doubled haploid method has had important practical impact on world-wide hybrid seed research,” noted his daughter, Helen Chase.

From 1954 to 1966, Sherret Chase served as a research geneticist and later director of international seed operations for the DeKalb Agricultural Association, a local company well-known for its leading role in the development of hybrid corn and for its “winged ear” logo. (The company later became DEKALB AgResearch.)

Over the course of a long career, Chase also served as an associate professor of botany at Iowa State University (which also honored him a year ago, citing his “visionary research”) and as a biology professor at State University of New York at Oswego. Additionally, Chase held two prestigious fellowships at Harvard University, and worked in leading roles for other plant breeding companies.

Chase developed techniques that led to great advances in plant breeding. Much of his work involved improvement of hybrid corn seed. In his recommendation for the honorary doctorate, NIU Graduate School Dean Bradley Bond wrote that the techniques that Chase developed are still used today, and they are used in all manner of plant breeding (not just corn).

“Dr. Chase is a true innovator, a professor, a pioneer and a world-renowned plant geneticist,” added University Libraries Dean Fred Barnhart in a letter of support for Chase.

Born in Ohio and raised in Pennsylvania, Chase graduated from Yale University in 1939 with a degree in botany. Although his graduate studies were interrupted by a three-year tour as a navigator in the Army Air Corps, he completed his Ph.D. in genetics in 1947 at Cornell University.

Chase currently lives in the Town of Olive in the Catskill Mountains of New York State. His many achievements go beyond plant breeding. His research expertise in forestry led to his co-founding of the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development, which works to protect the environmental and economic health of the Catskills. (Several years ago, Hudson Valley One detailed Chase’s contributions in a series: Part 1 and Part II.) He has served in various center capacities, including director, chairman and board member.

In 2015, Chase agreed to donate his personal and professional papers to the NIU Regional History Center. These papers were generated by Chase, primarily from his time in various capacities at the DeKalb Agricultural Association. Also included are family papers and those of his wife, Catherine Ross (Compton) Chase.

The Sherret S. Chase Papers complement the Center’s DEKALB AgResearch Collection donated to the Center by Leo Olson, communication director for DEKALB, with additions from Monsanto through the DEKALB Alumni Group. These two collections along with the many other agriculturally based collections held by the center help researchers document the history of the Northern Illinois region for future generations.

Chase joins a prestigious list of NIU honorary degree recipients. The awarding of honorary degrees provides an opportunity for NIU to recognize people with outstanding accomplishments in fields of interest to the university.