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Tuesday, January 1, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Helen R. Whiteley, UW Professor

When Helen Riaboff Whiteley moved to Seattle in 1947 to pursue graduate studies in microbiology, few women worked in the field.

Her sex wasn't the only obstacle. Her husband, Arthur, had taken a position as assistant professor of zoology at the University of Washington. And the university had strict anti-nepotism rules then.

``It was like pulling teeth to get a suitable academic position for a spouse,'' he said.

Yet his wife overcame that barrier, earning a doctorate and going on to a distinguished career in teaching and research at the UW. It culminated in a term as president of the 35,000-member American Society for Microbiology and 10 years as chairwoman of the society's publications board.

``I believe it's fair to say that she almost single-handedly broke the nepotism rules at the University of Washington,'' said Arthur Whiteley, now professor emeritus.

Dr. Helen Riaboff Whiteley died last month at 69. She had continued to pursue her research in molecular biology until shortly before her death. Some of her former colleagues at the UW are planning a service on Jan. 25 to celebrate her life and career.

Arthur Whiteley said many of the cards and letters he has received since his wife's death are from women scientists, who say they considered his wife to be a role model.

``She was somebody who just simply made her way up on sheer talent,'' said Dr. John Sherris, retired chairman of the UW's

microbiology department. ``She was an extraordinary scientist.''

``She gave all of her efforts to the university, and to science,'' said Dr. Eugene Nester, the department's current chairman.

Dr. Whiteley was born in Harbin, China, in 1921 to Russian parents. Her father had been a pilot in the czarist air force during World War I. Her family moved to Seattle in 1924, then to California during the Depression.

Dr. Whiteley's interest in microbiology emerged during her college days at the University of California at Berkeley, where she received her bachelor's degree in 1941. She earned a master's degree at the University of Texas, Galveston, in 1945.

After receiving her Ph.D. at the UW in 1951, she spent two years as a postdoctoral fellow with the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission in California, then returned to the university in 1953 to teach and to conduct research.

Ten years later she received a Career Award from the National Institutes of Health Research, providing financial support for research for the rest of her life. She became a full professor at the UW in 1965.

Dr. Whiteley was the first to clone the gene in the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (BT) that naturally produces an insecticidal protein. She worked to develop ways to introduce the gene into plants, including cotton and tobacco, to make them insect-resistant.

From 1978 to 1983, Dr. Whiteley chaired the U.S. side of the U.S.-Soviet Joint Working Group on Microbiology, a group formed under the U.S.-U.S.S.R Agreement on Science and Technology.

She co-authored and edited more than 165 scholarly works. She also was a visiting investigator at academic institutions in Denmark, Japan, and Italy.

Her interests outside work included skiing, tennis and travel. The Whiteleys lived in Japan for 18 months in the early 1960s, where they developed many friendships and professional relationships as well as an interest in Japanese culture.

Survivors, in addition to her husband, include a half-brother, Peter Riaboff, and stepmother Alice Riaboff, both of San Francisco.

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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