Tom's Blog

Friday, April 23, 2021

Thomas D. Brock, 1926-2021

Thomas Dale Brock, of Madison, Wisconsin, passed away on 4 April 2021 at the age of 94, due to complications from a fall. He was born 10 September 1926 in Cleveland, Ohio, the only child of Thomas Carter Brock and Helen Ringwald Brock.

Thomas D. Brock was the E. B. Fred Professor of Natural Sciences Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He made contributions to a wide variety of biological sciences; perhaps his best-known contribution was the discovery of extremely thermophilic microorganisms in high-temperature natural systems, including in Yellowstone National Park. An enzyme from one thermophilic bacterium he discovered, Thermus aquaticus, played a key role in the development of the polymerase chain reaction, which has revolutionized medicine, forensics, and biotechnology.

Tom’s father died when he was 15, and he and his mother moved from Cleveland to her hometown of Chillicothe, Ohio where she worked as a nurse. After graduating from high school, he served in the U. S. Navy during World War II, training in advanced radar and electronics technology. Following the war’s end, he completed his service as shore patrol on Kodiak Island, Alaska. Upon return from the Navy, he attended The Ohio State University, earning his Ph.D. in Botany 1952.

Beginning his scientific career as a research microbiologist with The Upjohn Company in 1952, he moved to Kalamazoo, MI with his first wife, Mary Louise Louden. After time on the faculties of Western Reserve University and Indiana University, in 1971 he moved to the Department of Bacteriology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he spent the rest of his academic career. His list of scientific publications spans sixty years, and his over 300 research papers and over 20 books ranged widely, from the authoritative textbook Biology of Microorganisms to diverse works in mycology, bacteriology, microbial ecology, limnology, ecological restoration, and other fields. He was the recipient of many honors including an honorary doctorate from UW-Madison; Ohio State’s Sullivant Medal for excellence in teaching and research; and the Golden Goose Award to recognize the power of basic scientific research, driven by pure curiosity, to benefit to human society in unexpected ways.

He is survived by his wife of fifty years, Katherine S. Middleton Brock, and his two children, Emily Katherine Brock of Washington, D.C., and Brian Thomas Brock of Laveen, Arizona. A lover of the outdoors as well as arts and culture, he spent happy times canoeing, hiking, and camping, and also taught himself German, read literature voraciously, played piano, and gained encyclopedic knowledge of classical music, art, and opera.

While best known as a scientist, Tom Brock was also intensely productive in other fields both before and after his retirement. In 1982, Tom and Kathie Brock co-founded a publishing company, Science Tech Publishers, which specialized in scientific monographs, popular science, and international publishing partnerships. He harbored a lifelong interest in genealogy and local history, contributing over the decades as researcher, author, journal editor, and historical society officer. He was also active in history of science, with a biography of Robert Koch, a history of microbial genetics, and an edited volume of classic papers among his contributions.

Perhaps his greatest achievement after retirement was the transformation of 140 acres of overgrown land in the Driftless Area of Wisconsin into a showpiece for ecological restoration techniques. In collaboration with his wife Kathie, he spent the last decades of his life developing strategies to restore oak savanna, prairie, and marshland ecology. Today, Pleasant Valley Conservancy State Natural Area contributes to our understanding of ecological restoration processes while also providing the solace of open spaces to nature lovers of all stripes. Pleasant Valley’s host of rare prairie and savanna plants, and its robust population of open grown bur oaks, serve as a lasting monument to Tom’s endless energy, inventiveness, enthusiasm, and dedication to the natural world. Memorials to Tom Brock’s life can be made via contributions to the nonprofit (501c3) charity he and Kathie founded to fund and manage their ecological restoration work: 

Savanna Oak Foundation Inc., c/o The Prairie Enthusiasts, P.O. Box 824, Viroqua, WI 54665. 

A celebration of Tom’s life will be planned for a later date.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Great fall burn weather during Election Week

Because of Covid most of our spring burns were canceled (needlessly!). So it was a great boon that the first week of November (Election Week) the burn weather was outstanding!

We got three major burns done: Black Earth Rettenmund Prairie (one of Southern Wisconsin's best remnants) on November 6 , the North Woods at Pleasant Valley Conservancy on November 8 (a high-quality  oak woodland that is typically hard to burn), and Unit 19 at PVC that is a mixture of oak savanna and woodland that runs along the dolomite ridge.

The sun was shining virtually all week, the afternoon temperatures were generally in the 60's, and the Dew Point steady at 40 F.

This Post deals with the Rettenmund Prairie burn. Although the prairie burn went well, we had surprising mop-up problems from the residue of a recently harvested adjacent corn field. (The fire department had to be called!) A great learning experience!

Rettenmund is divided into three burn units, two of which are burned each year. (The unit not burned receives major brush control work.) This year we burned the North and South Units, but not the Saddle Unit in the middle. In October Kathie mowed a fire break at each end of the Saddle with the Kubota tractor. On the day of the burn, Chris blew the breaks debris-free with our heavy-duty Stihl leaf blower.  Another important break is the motor lane that goes completely around the N, S, and E side of the prairie. Kathie mowed that several times during the season and a final mowing when she did the fire breaks.

When Rettenmund Prairie was acquired by the Nature Conservancy in 1986, the goal was to acquire all the property bordering County F. Unfortunately, Bill Rettenmund kept a wide strip (the best agricultural land) that lies between County F and the prairie. This land, about 20 acres, follows the usual rotation of alfalfa and corn. This year it was in corn. Fortunately for us, the corn was harvested the day before we burned. The stubble was to be plowed into the soil later.

We knew we had to monitor the stubble for spot fires, but we had no previous experience with agricultural waste and fire. The corn stalks were really dry (it is a grass, after all). One crew member was assigned to spot-fire monitoring. This was a wise move since we had a small flare-up almost immediately.

Completion of North Unit burn. Firebreaks and Saddle in background. Corn stubble in foreground

Black Earth volunteer fire department put out the stubble fire in short order

Friday, May 1, 2020

Comparison between burned (2019) and unburned (2020) areas of the same oak savanna

We were prevented from  burning in 2020 because of the corona virus pandemic.

I found two photos from the same location: 2019 (dormant season-early March burn), and 2020 unburned.
April 28, 2019 (burned early March)

April 30, 2020 (unburned)

The main green in the unburned year is the road, which is kept open as  fire break. There are scattered green patches of grass or forb among the dead thatch, but you have to look carefully to find them.

Will 2020 ever catch up to 2019?

We'll see!

Thursday, April 2, 2020

My old work now playing part of the corona virus assay

My work on Thermus aquaticus has been reported frequently because of its significance in DNA technology. Who knew it would also play  a role in the corona virus test?

This link to the National Geographic tells the story briefly:

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Importance of fire with Midwest oak savannas

We have been burning our oak savannas at Pleasant Valley Conservancy "annually" for the past 20 years. They have always been dormant season burns, either late fall or early spring. These annual burns are part of the reason the PVC savannas look so spectacular.

This year, because of the corona virus pandemic, our burn permits have all been canceled. (Our principal oak savanna burn was planned for 40 acres, a substantial size.)

Although we have willingly complied with the burn ban, to help in our small way in control of a global tragedy, a few words about the importance of savanna burns might be relevant.

Burns are most important for the more open savannas, where the understory vegetation (and principal fuel) is prairie-like.

The first photo shows how lush this unburned vegetation is. With this sort of understory, it takes quite a while for this year's new growth to get started. That is why the controlled burn so dramatically stimulates the understory growth. Areas that have been burned are usually 2-3 weeks ahead of unburned areas.

Understory vegetation of  an unburned  bur oak savanna, March 2020

Similar vegetation in March 2019, just at the start of the controlled burn

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Corona virus: Controlled burns for natural areas now canceled

Since my post yesterday, Wisconsin DNR Forestry has canceled burn permits for natural areas. (Burns for agricultural purposes are still permitted.)

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Restoration ecology in the time of corona virus: controlled burns

These are fearsome times, with a modern plague raging  across the land. Unfortunately, the full significance of the epidemic only became evident in late March, just when burn season was well started. (We had already done three successful burns.)

On March 17, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers issued a "Safe at home" order, which will extend for a month. The order ends April 24, which unfortunately is near the end of our regular burn season. (Of course, the rule could always be extended.)

What to do?

I think prescribed burns can continue, provided each worker practices what the Governor calls "social distancing". (This is the procedure recommended for construction workers.) Social distancing should not be difficult on the usual burn. The only inconvenience would be that car pooling would be prohibited. (Nothing wrong with renting a large van or bus and sitting well apart!)

I strongly recommend that burns not be canceled. Ecosystems that require fire are too fragile to go unburned, even for a single year!

Burn from Dec 2018. The two workers on the right are too close together, but in a burn now would be farther part.