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Founders of Environmental Biophysics: Champ Tanner

Champ Tanner (November 16, 1920 – September 22, 1990) Image: http://soils.wisc.edu/people/history/champ-tanner/

Champ Tanner (November 16, 1920 – September 22, 1990) Image: soils.wisc.edu

We interviewed Gaylon Campbell, Ph.D. about his association with one of the founders of environmental biophysics, Champ Tanner.

Who was Champ Tanner?

Champ Tanner was a dominant scientist in his time and a giant among his colleagues.  He was the first soil scientist to be elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences: the highest honor a scientist can achieve in the United States.  Some may not realize that throughout a career filled with achievements and awards, he battled the challenges of a debilitating illness.  He didn’t let that limit his passion for science, however.  His efforts to understand and improve measurements generally went beyond those of his fellow scientists.  One of his colleagues once said of him, “Champ’s life exemplified goal-oriented determination and optimism regardless of physical or financial impediment.”

Dr. Champ Tanner was one of the pioneers in applying micrometeorology to agriculture.

Dr. Tanner was one of the pioneers in applying micrometeorology to agriculture.

What were his scientific contributions?

Champ was an extremely careful experimentalist who was gifted at developing instrumentation.   He started out making significant contributions in soil physics such as improved methods for measuring water retention, particle size distribution, air-filled porosity, and permeability.  He was one of the pioneers in applying micrometeorology to agriculture and was passionate about finding ways to improve the precision and reliability of measurements.  No measurement was too difficult.  He designed and built his own precise weighing lysimeters which provided measurements of evapotranspiration in as little as 15 minutes.   Later, he switched to plant physiology, reading almost every published paper on the subject and then building his own thermocouple psychrometer and plant pressure chambers, making important contributions in that field.

His largest contribution, however, was the measure of excellence he inspired in the students that he trained.   I don’t know of anybody, anywhere in the world, that produced a crop of students that has attained the levels that his have.  They’ve all made enormous contributions in many different fields.  Perhaps it was because he was a pretty hard taskmaster.   He expected the students to meet a standard, and the ones that struggled with that had a hard time. In fact, to this day one former student complains, “About once a year, I have a nightmare in which Champ appears.”

Champ Tanner

I don’t know of anybody, anywhere in the world, that produced a crop of students that has attained the levels that his have.

Champ wanted his students to measure up, but he also cared about them.  His fellow scientist, Wilford Gardner, described him this way, “There was a transcendent integrity to his personality that permeated everything he did.  He could be blunt, candid and forthright, but he was never lacking in compassion and concern for students, colleagues, and friends.”

What was your association with him?

I had a wonderful relationship with Champ, although I wasn’t one of his students. One of his former students came to WSU as a visiting scientist and told him about what I was working on.  As a result, he brought me into his inner circle of associates and played a vital role in the success of my research.  This association even extended to my family who were with me on one of my many trips to Madison. Despite my numerous and occasionally unruly progeny, he and his wife welcomed us like long lost relatives and made each of the children feel special.  That’s who they were: the most caring and outgoing people.

Champ also had a sense of humor.  He used to call me up to have long discussions about science, and because he was two time zones ahead, it would get pretty late for him. We’d be having an intense discussion about experimentation, and all of a sudden he’d stop and say, “Oh, I’d better cut this off, or I’ll get home to a cold supper and a hot wife.”

What kind of a person was he?

If you worked in his lab, you needed to tow the mark.  You didn’t leave tools around, and you didn’t mess them up. If you left out a screwdriver, you’d find it on your desk the next morning with a terse note.  And if you took the diagonal pliers, cut some hard wire with it and left some nicks, those would be on your desk too. It was a sort of tough love, but he used it to train his students to the highest possible level.  

Champ Tanner

He taught his students to be rigorous in their measurement protocols

He wanted his students to stand up and argue for their point.  If you were the kind of person that could stand your ground and put up a good defense, he loved that.  Gardner described Champ in this way, “His work hours were legendary.  His standards of science and personal integrity were almost unrealistically high.  The stories his students now pass on to their students may sound apocryphal to those who did not know Champ.  But it was impossible to exaggerate where Champ was concerned.”

What do you think scientists today can learn from him?

What we can learn from Champ Tanner is not to fool ourselves.  He thought you should try to come to an answer in a few different ways, to be sure that it really was the answer. He taught his students to be rigorous in their measurement protocols in order to get the noise out of their experiments.  He wanted them to dig to the bottom of problems and understand the details.  In his mind, you couldn’t be a scientist and rely on somebody else to figure out heat transfer or radiation. He thought you should understand it well enough that you could defend it yourself.   

You can read more about Champ Tanner’s life and scientific contributions in this biographical sketch, written for the National Academy of Sciences when he died.

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