U professor, honored bird-genetics pioneer dies at 88

by Sam Boeser

A University geneticist who was one of the first to link specific genes to animal traits and who contributed to the field for more than 60 years passed away Jan. 1.

Robert Shoffner was 88 years old.

“He wasn’t a household name in Minnesota, but perhaps it should have been,” said Charles Muscoplat, College of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Sciences dean, in his monthly radio address on the Minnesota Farm Network.

An expert in bird genetics, Shoffner broke new ground in his field studying the organization of chromosomes and genes that influence traits in poultry production.

Shoffner received his master’s degree and doctorate in poultry genetics from the University before becoming a research assistant in 1940. In 1955, Shoffner became a full professor and went on to spend his entire career with the University.

“He was one of the first to move from traditional genetics to cellular,” said Abel Ponce de Leon, head of the University’s department of animal science. “That allowed him to identify the genes that control particular traits.”

The modern Thanksgiving turkey with more white meat can be traced to Shoffner’s work.

While Shoffner’s early research focused on phenotype breeding, the traditional way of choosing mating partners based on desirable traits, he later concentrated his research on the development of chicken embryos.

Besides being used in the poultry industry, his findings helped researchers in other fields learn how human embryos develop.

“He was a pioneer whose research was also applied to many other fields,” Ponce de Leon said. “Many have followed in his footsteps.”

Throughout his career, Shoffner received many honors and distinctions.

A one-time head of the University’s department of poultry science, Shoffner was also a Fulbright Scholar who consulted the governments of India, Brazil, Canada and France on poultry-related issues. The University’s animal science department library is also named in his honor.

Ponce de Leon said Shoffner’s work improved the poultry production industry, which helped increase the consumption of chicken. Shoffner improved the traits producers desired in the birds, he said.

Services for Shoffner are scheduled for spring. A memorial donation in Shoffner and his wife’s name is available through the department of animal science.