Jean Brenchley

Obituary of Jean E. Brenchley

Jean E. Brenchley of State College passed away on Tuesday, July 9, 2019 at Juniper Village in State College. Born in Towanda, PA, March 6, 1944, she was the daughter of the late J. Edward and Elizabeth (Jefferson) Brenchley. Jean is survived by her brother James Brenchley (Shirley) of LeRoy Township, her niece Donna Field (Brian), and her nephews John Brenchley (Kimberly) and Michael Brenchley (Korey).

Jean graduated from Canton High School in 1962 and received her B.S. degree in biology from Mansfield University, Mansfield, PA in 1965, after which she obtained a M.S. degree in marine microbiology from the University of California, San Diego, in 1967, followed by her Ph.D. degree in microbiology from the University of California, Davis, in 1970. She held a 1-year post-doctoral appointment in the Biology Department of MIT, Cambridge, MA, and then joined the faculty of Penn State's Microbiology Department (University Park) in 1971 as Assistant Professor and subsequently promoted to Associate Professor. In 1977 Jean continued her teaching and research activity at the Biological Sciences Department of Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN, being promoted to Professor of Biology in 1979. From 1981 to 1984, she was Research Director for Microbial Biochemistry at Genex Corporation, Gaithersburg, MD, before moving back to Penn State in 1984 as Head of the Department of Microbiology and Cell Biology and also as founding Director of the Penn State Biotechnology Institute which she established at the request of Penn State's President Bryce Jordan. Through extensive public appearances, she raised millions of dollars for the institute and oversaw its design, construction and outfitting. She established a fermentation pilot plant and directed the start of short courses and workshops in which modern scale-up procedures were learned by scientists from across the USA as well as from foreign countries. Upon concluding administrative duties in 1990, she returned to research and teaching as Professor of Microbiology and Biotechnology until her retirement with emeritus status from Penn State in 2011.

Jean always focused on microorganisms - their biochemical, genetic, and environmental properties, and her research revealed many interesting features of these smallest living organisms. Initially much of her academic attention was devoted to the genetics and metabolism of amino acids in species of Salmonella but when she returned to research in 1990, her interests successfully broadened to cover biotechnological applications of psychrophilic (cold-loving) microbes. Her interest in novel psychrophiles and their cold-active enzymes meshed well with biotechnological and commercial applications being developed for these microorganisms, and further expanded into the exploration of microbial diversity in cold environments like Greenland glacier ice samples and ice cores extracted from Antarctic regions. These later studies involved collaboration with Penn State geoscientists to recover microbes from 120,000 year-old glacial ice core samples, then coupled with their growth characteristics and metagenomic analyses, the results usually led to the discovery of new microorganisms, including several novel ultramicrobacterial species, all of which continue to amaze researchers with their survival properties over millennia as well as their evolutionary adaptation to cold functionality. To assist with these studies, she trained numerous post-doctoral and graduate students who subsequently have gone on to establish their own careers as industrial, governmental and academic scientists; all credit her encouragement and leadership qualities as important attributes of the training they received under her direction.

Among her many honors and awards received, Jean was designated an Outstanding Alumna of Mansfield University (1983), and awarded an Honorary Doctorate Degree from Lycoming College (1992). She received the Waksman Award for Outstanding Contributions in Microbiology from the Theobald Smith Society (1985), the Alice Evans Award from the American Society for Microbiology (1996) for her longstanding commitment to the professional development of women in microbiology, and received a Research Career Development Award from NIH (1976-1981). She was elected President of the American Society for Microbiology (1986) and accepted as a Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology (1987). She later was named a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1994) and a Fellow of the Society for Industrial Microbiology (1998). Jean was recognized as a leader in the microbial sciences by being selected as Editor for the Journal of Applied and Environmental Microbiology (1981-1985) and for Microbiological Reviews (1992-1997). She participated as a member of several microbiology journals' editorial boards and also was a frequent participant in groups examining the status of women microbiologists and employment opportunities for women and minorities in science, being the keynote speaker at the 2009 Symposium for Women in the Sciences. Many of Jean's professional papers and personal awards have been donated by Jean and her family to the LeRoy Heritage Museum (associated with the Bradford County Historical Society Museum in Towanda) for inclusion in a section of the museum that features notable accomplishments of Bradford County natives.

In 1990 Jean married author Bernard Asbell who died in 2011. Through Bernie, Jean was privileged to know his successful adult children Paul, Larry, John, and Jodi. Jean especially enjoyed knowing Larry, his wife Chris, and their son, Jacob, when he was a student at Penn State; Jean much appreciated Jacob sharing his adventures with her.

Following her retirement, a colleague introduced Jean to fly fishing which proved to be a great joy for her and offered considerable relaxation, along with learning how easy it was to lose flies. She equally enjoyed meeting with and teaching other women to fly fish, as evidenced by her years of active participation with the Central Pennsylvania Women Anglers group. She could always be counted on to illustrate rod assembly, attaching a fly, and getting their fly line tangled. She also took pleasure in planting a small vegetable garden which never failed to produce ample nutritious vegetables for neighboring groundhogs, rabbits and deer.

A memorial service celebrating Jean's life is planned for August 31, 11 A.M., at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Centre County, 780 Waupelani Extension, State College. In lieu of flowers, those persons wishing to support a cause valued and enjoyed by Jean are directed to the Tom Tudek Memorial Park Trust (Ferguson Township Municipal Building Attn: Tom Tudek Memorial Trust, 3147 Research Drive State College, PA 16801).

Arrangements are under the direction of Koch Funeral Home, State College. Online condolences and signing of the guest book may be entered at

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Memorial Service

11:00 am
Saturday, August 31, 2019
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Centre County
780 Waupelani Dr. Extension
State College, Pennsylvania, United States
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