Robert Michael Benbow

Robert Michael Benbow

Died September 17, 2005

Robert Benbow, a descendant of the real Admiral Benbow of Treasure Island, dropped out of Yale – but not out of New Haven. He left after his junior year and went to work as a physicist at Yale- New Haven Hospital. That was where he first learned of molecular biology and, as he wrote for his 25th reunion, “knew, finally, what I wanted to do.” He returned to Yale, graduated in ’67 and launched onto a career which was unimaginable to the freshman who had arrived on the Old Campus in 1961. Does any freshman plan on having ten children?

He earned his Ph.D. in biophysics and chemical physics from California Institute of Technology in 1972 and, deciding the southern California life style was not for him, “headed east to the then scientific mecca of the Medical Research Council Cambridge, England,” where, “DNA sequencing was worked out upstairs, monoclonal antibodies were discovered down the hall.” He ate his dinners free of charge thanks to a long-forgotten agreement with Calhoun College. During three years of touring the continent and the British Isles, he discovered his roots – Admiral Benbow and a 16th century ancestral home turned Ford dealership – and courted his second wife, Camilla Persson, the daughter of a Swedish professor he had met at Cal Tech. By the time he came back from Europe, he had friends and relatives in Amsterdam, London, Lund, Lago Maggiore, Heidelberg, Mannheim, Melsungen, Bonn, and Darnstadt, not to mention Kyoto.

Robert and Camilla landed in Baltimore where he became a professor in the Department of Biology at Johns Hopkins. Baltimore is “a vibrant, rough-edged city with some lovely old neighborhoods and some terrifying combat zones,” he wrote; but it is “not an easy place to raise children.” He should know. In a span of 13 years, he and Camilla had seven children to go with the three by his first marriage.

In 1986 the Benbow clan left Johns Hopkins for the heartland – Iowa State University. He couldn’t say enough good things about Iowa – “beautiful land,” “incredibly friendly people,” and “a great place to raise kids” – or about the university where he was a professor in the Department of Zoology; and Camilla was a professor of psychology as well as director of the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth: “The meeting of modern molecular biology (genetic engineering) and classical agriculture has created tremendous intellectual and scientific excitement. This is (for real) a brave new world.”

Robert died from internal bleeding on September 17, 2005. His ten children – all blonds like him – have, at last count, produced 17 grandchildren.