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Oldest UI faculty member recounts life

BY RACHEL GREEN | NOVEMBER 20, 2014 5:00 AM

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Putting a band on the leg of every bat in New England is no easy task. And finding one of those same bats 30 years later is no small feat, either.

But this is all in a day’s work for G. Edgar Folk, a University of Iowa professor emeritus of physiology.

As an undergraduate student at Harvard University, Folk was a part of a research team that took on the task of banding every bat in New England.

Thirty years later, Folk managed to capture a bat with a familiar mark around its leg, and he described this moment as the “thrill of research.”

He has been at the forefront of biology throughout his career, even developing a new field of science and being the man behind a commonly known fact about bears.

The 100-year-old was one of two scientists who discovered that bears hibernate during the winter.

“I’ve always studied hibernation … I learned that there was a great mystery: Do bears hibernate or not?” Folk said. “But just at that time, I got a wonderful collaborator who was an electronic engineer. He made for us a small radio that I could put in animals and … the radio would broadcast their physiology.”

This research was not Folk’s only effect on the scientific community, however.

As a professor of physiology, he created and named his own field of science, environmental physiology.

“It was a delight to develop environmental physiology because it turned out to be something that was needed,” Folk said. “I didn’t know it was going to happen, and I didn’t know how popular it was going to be. It allowed me to study … the relationship between extreme environments and my own physiology.”

Folk said he always knew he wanted to be a biologist, but the idea was pushed forward by his parents.

“My mother was a specialist in plants, and my father was a specialist in animals, so that’s the way I was brought up,” he said.

Folk’s daughter, Victoria Sprague, said growing up with Folk and his work was interesting, too.

“As his only child, I was always fascinated by his stories,” she said. “He’s been a very busy man, and I think his greatest joy in life has been nature, and he just continues that love. The wonderful thing is he passed it on to others and to me.”

Folk, who has been a UI physiology professor since 1980, he said Iowa City and its surrounding areas have developed tremendously since then.

During World War II, Folk said, he contributed to the war effort by testing things for soldiers to sleep in while in the trenches, using eight soldiers living in Iowa City.

In addition to having soldiers test their gear, Folk tested the gear in a large cold room, kept at minus-40 degrees Fahrenheit.

“The military would say, ‘Would you test these jackets in your cold room and write a report,’ and then they would decide whether to order it and issue it to the soldiers,” Folk said. “It was very exciting.”

The UI, in a celebration of his accomplishments and his 100th birthday, held a birthday party for Folk earlier this month.

Tom Schmidt, a UI professor of physiology and a colleague of Folk’s, said Folk has acted as a mentor to him.

“He has given me sound advice concerning my teaching, University of Iowa, and national committee work, and writing questions for the National Board of Medical Examiners,” he said. “He has always been very supportive of my efforts.”

As Folk sat in his red chair with wooden arms in room lined with books, he provided some advice for college students that he himself followed.

“Figure out what you love and do it,” he said. “I’ve been doing that all my life, and I don’t regret a moment of it.”


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