For 36 years Charles H. Drake was a popular, well-respected professor at Washington State University. His introductory class in bacteriology attracted many non-science majors, as well as students preparing for careers in health care.
“He was an extraordinary articulate lecturer, … the quintessential eccentric professor who enlivens the college experience for students and opens their minds through dedicated teaching and irreverent questioning of their comfortable ideas and beliefs,” recalls Martin Favero (’61 M.S. Bact., ’64 Ph.D. Bact.), San Clemente, California.
Drake retired in 1981. He was 86 when he died May 20, 2002 in Pullman.
He is credited with inaugurating Introductory Bacteriology (Bact. 101), which he taught every semester after joining the faculty in 1944. He also taught Higher Bacteria and Fungi (Bact. 451) spring semesters. In his lectures he displayed a wry sense of humor and was an inveterate punster.
A typical quip: “Did you hear about the communist weatherman?” “Rudolph, the Red, knows rain, dear.”
His tests included one bonus question unrelated to bacteriology or science. Short and barrel-chested, he was a familiar figure on campus in his cowboy boots, black Stetson.
In 1993, retired chairman Herb Nakata interviewed Drake while gathering information for a history of the Department of Bacteriology and Public Health. Nakata’s work provides more insights about Drake.
The Waterloo, Iowa native’s interest in biology and bacteriology was sparked in high school when he read such books as Paul DeKruif’s Microbe Hunters. Thanks to his grandmother, he acquired a microscope to better examine the culture media he learned to make.
Drake earned bachelor’s (’37) and master’s (’40) degrees, as well as his doctorate (’42), at the University of Minnesota.
During World War II, Drake filled in “reams” of paperwork to become a bacteriologist in the U.S. Army. Twice rejected, he tried a third time without success. From those experiences, he said, he learned the Army didn’t want Ph.D.s. “If you give them [Ph.D.s] an order, they will know of three other ways to do it, two of which were better. And they were right.”
Drake’s research interests included the bacterial ecology of the Snake River before and after Lower Granite Dam was built.
A reserve officer in the U.S. Public Health Service, he spent the summers of 1957 and 1963 in Nevada as a radiation monitor during atom bomb tests. He also conducted a study of water pollution at Lake Tahoe in 1962.
Favero notes that at a time when the specialties of microbial physiology and genetics were just emerging, Drake would constantly point out that although the study of pure cultures of microorganisms could produce interesting and helpful results, “the study of microorganisms in their naturally occurring states was often more relevant.”
Drake learned to fly in the 1960s and purchased a Cessna 150. A rafting enthusiast, he became a professional whitewater guide. He won medals in marksmanship and fencing. He also had a vast knowledge of wines.
He and Audrey, his wife of 59 years, camped in most of the U.S. national parks and hiked in many of them.
In 1989, the Drakes created a trust to provide assistance for WSU graduate students and postdoctoral researchers in microbial ecology. Memorial gifts may be sent to the Drake Fellowship, c/o WSU Foundation, PO Box 1042, Pullman, Washington 99164-1042.