Mathematical biologist and author deeply rooted in the place of his childhood
Native son Jerry Chandler returns home to Morrison County to write
by Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
After more than 50 years of foreign travel and scientific work in biochemistry, genetics, toxicology, mathematics and public health, Jerry Chandler is back living in Minnesota.
He first drew breath at St. Gabriel’s Hospital in Little Falls, learned to read and write at rural Lincoln School and graduated from Motley High School.
For the next five decades, he lived in places as diverse as Oklahoma, Germany and the Washington, D.C. area. His ongoing foreign travel took him to 16 countries on three continents.
Chandler returned to Minnesota to be able to write in a place without interruptions.
“My spirit is deeply rooted in Minnesota; it’s home,” he said. “I also needed a place where deep thought on mathematics is possible.”
Chandler grew up on a dairy farm in Lincoln and walked to school. He enjoyed the closeness formed with the farm animals as he did chores.
“The animals became part of the family,” he said.
Among his fondest memories are the threshing crews which travelled from farm to farm. “Those were great farm community events,” said Chandler. “When I was a very young boy, some farmers were still using horses to bring in the grain.”
He credits a busy one-room school teacher for his ambidexterity. “She was one teacher with 41 pupils,” he said. “Although she made me write with my right hand when I was at the board, she didn’t seem to notice that I wrote with my left hand at my desk. So I thank her.”
He swam and fished at Fish Trap Lake in summers, and skated there in winter. His mother’s Polish traditions deeply influenced his life.
“She was from Sobieski, a Drellack, and a very spiritual woman,” Chandler said. “She was also a great cook who used all of the old Polish traditions. She made such a variety of breads and rolls. The wonderful soups she fixed were nearly identical to soups I had in Germany.”
There was a wide range of traditional family meals in the Chandler home. “I liked the traditional side of it,” Chandler said. “I tried to preserve the traditions in my own family, when my two sons were growing up.”
Chandler has six siblings, two of whom still live in Minnesota.
The quality of life in Little Falls is part of what brought him back. “There is no traffic and the basic essentials are readily available. It’s a beautiful area. Life is very easy here in comparison to large cities.”
Chandler lived in Oklahoma for eight years, Freiburg, Germany for three years, Oklahoma again for three years and then in McLean, Va. for 34 years.
Chandler earned his bachelor of science degree in chemistry while in Oklahoma, followed by his doctor of philosophy in biochemistry-genetics and nutrition. He has completed post-graduate education in public health law and mathematics.
“The biggest adventure of living in Germany was being invited in 1971 by an East German scientist to Halle to give a lecture,” he said. “It took 18 months to get a visa. I crossed into East Germany north of Munich and it took six hours to clear customs. I didn’t like those machine guns pointed at me.”
Being in East Germany was like going back in time 40 years. “They didn’t have any paint, so nothing was painted. Wallpaper was not being produced, so it had not been replaced. Homes were heated with coal stoves in the middle of the living rooms,” he said. “There were virtually no new cars; they were from the 1930s. It was a culture shock to go into a country like that and see the poverty, especially when compared with the prosperity in West Germany.”
Chandler returns to Germany generally once a year to lecture as a visiting professor at the International Institute for Advanced Study in Systems Research and Cybernetics in Baden-Baden.
Right after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, he was invited to speak at a conference in Potsdam, Germany. The irony is that the conference took place at Truman House on Karl Marx Strasse (street).
“Truman stayed there during the Potsdam Conference in 1945, negotiating the treaty following World War II,” Chandler said.
His work experiences have been wide and varied, from public health service positions in epilepsy and cancer research, the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and work on the Committee for Destruction of Chemical Weapons.
In about 1981, Chandler testified before Congress on the toxicity of a pesticide which had caused sterility in agricultural workers.
Through an organization called the Institute for Theological Encounter with Science and Technology, Chandler was invited to participate in a one-week conference at the Vatican in about 1984.
“The conference issue was how to make a minimal set of drugs available to the poorest of the poor,” said Chandler. “We recommended basic drugs, with a target of narrowing it down to 100, which could be made available at a reasonable cost.”
In the late 1990s, Chandler was one of the scientists monitoring the destruction of chemical weapons stockpiles from World War I and World War II, following the directives of an international treaty.
“Congress decided that the National Academy of Sciences would oversee the project,” Chandler said. “We made quarterly visits to chemical weapons depots.”
Chandler participated in the project for three years, making a number of trips to Johnston Atoll, an unincorporated United States Territory in the North Pacific Ocean, and the location of the first chemical munitions disposal facility.
Chandler was invited to Ankara, Turkey in 2007. “I presented my new and highly controversial theory of perplex numbers to mathematicians. On the return trip I visited the Hagia Sophia and the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. I could wander through there for hours,” he said.
He is currently a research professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. He is also a scientific adviser for the International Association of Firefighters.
“There has been a focus on the design of courses to help firefighters learn how to protect themselves, to prevent firefighter injuries,” he said.
Chandler is a cofounder of three scientific societies: the European Environment Mutagen Society in 1971 in Germany; the Society for Risk Analysis in 1979 in Oak Ridge, Tenn. and the Washington Evolutionary Systems Society in 1983 at Georgetown University in Washington.
In 2000, Chandler and University of Ghent (Belgium) Professor of Philosophy Gertrudis Van de Vijver coedited a book, “Closure,” published by the New York Academy of Sciences. The book describes the various philosophies of biology.
Chandler is now in the middle of research for a book titled “Perplex Number Theory.”
“The question that led to this book was posed in 1971 by a German professor,” he said. “It uses a new number system I constructed from atomic numbers of chemistry and biology. It has consumed my life for several years.”
But Chandler’s mind is not continuously caught up in high intellectual pursuits. One of his favorite occupations is cooking.
“In an Oklahoma newspaper in 1973, I found a recipe for a complete Thanksgiving dinner and have used it at least once a year ever since,” Chandler said. “It features a cranberry chestnut stuffing that is absolutely superb. The recipe has been circulated to many family members.”
After experiencing political activity on national and international levels, he has been a fairly regular attendee at Little Falls City Council and Morrison County Commissioners meetings.
“I know how Washington works — I watched it for more than 30 years,” he said. “I like to see how government works at the local level.”
Chandler witnessed a Washington atmosphere continually loaded with tensions. “It’s not a community,” he said. “The phrase ‘inside the Beltway’ has real significance. Life inside the Beltway disconnects people from the rest of the country. The political tensions distract my mind from doing mathematics.”
He is also continually gathering material for potential poetry and novels.
“I’ve written some poetry now and then. It helps to clarify the mind and the spirit,” he said. “As a scientist, you almost forget how to use adjectives; the factual side suppresses the emotional side. By expressing yourself in poetry or fiction, you reestablish contact with your emotions, and hence with adjectives.”
Chandler spends evenings watching the sunset across the Mississippi River. “I don’t consider myself to be retired,” he said. “My mind has never operated on a nine-to-five schedule. The secret is enjoying what you do.”
He said he has been very blessed in having some very good positions. “I love to do research — it’s captivating,” he said.
While doing research on epilepsy, Chandler came to realize how beautiful the human mind is.
“It’s miraculous — stunning,” he said. “I hope and pray that my decades of work on the mathematical perplexity of numbers will shed a tiny ray of light on what it means to be human.”