Worksheet 2: Biography T. Kent Kirk

T. Kent Kirk was born on October 13, 1940, in Minden, Louisiana and grew up in Natchitoches, Louisiana, a town surrounded by pine forests. He received his Bachelors Degree in Forestry from Louisiana Polytechnic Institute in 1962 and his Masters in Plant Pathology (the study of plant diseases) from North Carolina State University in 1964. Then in 1968 he completed his Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Plant Pathology from N.C. State. In 1970 Kent Kirk began working for the USDA Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin.

Image 1: Kent Kirk, USDA Forest Service Researcher, in his high school chemistry lab. Studying hard, long before he went to work for the Forest Product Lab in Wisconsin.

Dr. Kirk is currently considered one of the world leaders in understanding microbiological degradation of lignin. Lignin is a complex chemical compound that is one of the main components of wood and of the cell walls of all woody plants. Kirk’s research involved the study of microscopic organisms and their effects while breaking down lignin into simpler compounds. His research studied various wood decay fungi that break down wood, including lignin. This breakdown is central to the earth’s carbon cycle and to the environment. Kirk made numerous ground-breaking discoveries. These discoveries led to the development of procedures that utilize lignin-decaying fungi in the biological pulping (biopulping) of wood. Biopulping uses a fungus to convert wood pieces to paper pulp. These biopulping discoveries, made in part by Kirk, may become an essential step in paper production and a key new method used by the paper industry since it results in significant reduction in energy costs.

Dr. Kirk’s research at the USDA Forest Products Lab was important not only to the timber industry but to the environment as well. Applying biotechnology in wood utilization can help in cleaning up chemical bleaching wastewaters, and polluted soils contaminated with organic pollutants.

Dr. Kirk has written over 200 papers and won numerous awards for his research efforts, including election to the National Academy of Sciences in 1988. In an oral history completed in 2005 Kirk said “I think a willingness to embrace and develop new techniques is a strength that scientists need.” From his accomplishments, it would appear that he possessed this strength.

Dr. T. Kent Kirk retired early from the USDA Forest Products Lab in 1996. He then worked for a few years at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and the National Academy of Sciences’ National Research Council.

Image 2: Kent Kirk Receiving the Marcus Wallenberg Prize from the Carl XVI Gustaf, King of Sweden, in 1985 in Falun, Sweden.