ROE R. Cross Distinguished Professor
1982 - Helen McElree
Dr. Helen McElree, professor of biology, left her specialized teaching position at the University of Kansas to come to Kansas State Teachers College (now Emporia State University) in 1962.
What she found upon arrival was a bare cupboard. Not much in the way of classes or equipment.
“Only two courses in microbiology were offered,” McElree recalled during an interview with the Emporia Gazette, “and both were taught by a botanist.”
The curriculum expanded quickly after her arrival. Students could obtain a variety of courses and three instructors with Ph.D. degrees in biology — with microbiology as their field — were employed. Basic equipment to deal with research was purchased.
“She helped build the molecular microbiology program at ESU that is attracting students from around the world,” said Dr. Tom Eddy, a colleague of McElree’s who still teaches at Emporia State.
Born in Waxahachie, Texas, McElree obtained her bachelor’s with a major in pre-med from the College of the Ozarks. After graduation she went to work for the Public Health Laboratories in Dallas where she became interested in microbiology. Finding little challenge in her lab job prompted her to return to school. Deciding against medical school, she chose grad school in medical oriented microbiology and got a masters from the University of Oklahoma in 1954. She went to the University of Kansas for her Ph.D. and received it in 1959. McElree remained at KU to teach.
Her motivation to move to Emporia State centered around the same types of reasons many students say they choose the school; small classes, individual attention, and opportunities.
“I feel an individual professor on this campus has a greater opportunity for productivity and measurable accomplishment than might be true on a larger campus,” Dr. McElree told the Emporia Gazette during a 1966 interview. She added that her greatest pleasure came from working with college students.
“Since I transferred here from my specialized position at KU, I have come in closer contact with other fields of biology and it has been very refreshing, added McElree. “Because of this exposure, I have developed an interest in bird watching, fishing, and nature in general. It has enriched my life.”
When not in the classroom, McElree loved her west coast jazz, especially the George Shearing Quintet and Thelonious Monk. It was her hobby. But in the classroom she was all business.
"My students are challenged, not mollycoddled,” she said. “I try to excite my students and make them realize the fulfillment of developing their minds. I can't imagine not teaching. This profession is molding the minds of people and giving them extraordinary challenges and responsibilities. I don't think I'd trade places with anyone."
The results were impressive. During her career at Emporia State, more than 25 of McElree’s students chose to do graduate work in immunology alone. Several earned Ph.D. degrees from such universities as Johns Hopkins, Western Reserve, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of Kansas Medical Center.
“I recall she was a serious dedicated teacher who respected students and saw much value in each of them,” said Dr. Eddy. “She worked tirelessly to make ESU a better university for both students and faculty. Helen expected much from her students and they responded with later achievements in research and teaching positions in major institutions.”
McElree was named the Xi Phi Outstanding Professor and was twice named the most outstanding biology teacher on campus. She and her graduate assistants pioneered research on the macrophage system of specialized cells in the body's defense system. Over the years, McElree received research grants totaling more than $100,000.
In 1962 she received a grant from the Kansas Heart Association and the National Institute of Health based on bacteriology research she authored. research will be done on the ability of cells to resist infection primarily this means that a study will be made of the factors causing cells to resist or not resist infection. Her research was duly recognized and extended in 1964.
Always involved in the campus community, McElree was a founder of the Emporia State Faculty Senate, and she served as its first president. On and off campus, McElree advocated for the rights and recognition of women in science and education. Three Kansas governors recognized her special service to the state of Kansas.
Note: This is not a continuously updated biographical sketch