Irmgard Johanna (Joan) Lorch Staple (1923-2022): A Woman Ahead of Her Times

Last month my cousin Wink Lorch informed me that her aunt and my fourth cousin, once removed, Joan Lorch Staple had passed away on November 27, 2022, after living a remarkable life for more than 99 years. Joan was related to me through our mutual ancestors, Jacob Seligmann and Martha Mayer, she through their daughter Martha and me through their son Moritz, my three-times great-grandfather.

Joan was born in Offenbach, Germany, on June 13, 1923, escaped from Nazi Germany to England with her parents during the 1930s, and married Peter Staple in England in 1952. Together they had two sons and immigrated to the US, settling first in Alabama and later in Buffalo, New York. Joan also had a long and successful career while raising her family; she was truly a woman ahead of her times..

Joan had a remarkable career as a scientist and as a scholar and teacher, as described below in her obituary, and she wrote two memoirs about her life: Chance and Choice: My First Thirty Years (2007) and Change and Challenge: My Life After Thirty (2009). I have read them both, and they are fascinating. They tell not only the story of Joan and her family, but provide valuable historical insights into living in Germany before the Nazi era, the persecution of Jews during the Nazi era in Germany in the 1930s, life in England during World War II, and racism in Alabama before and during the Civil Rights movement, as well as the struggles of being a woman scientist in the years before, during, and after the Women’s Movement.

But the obituary written by Joan’s sons tells her story much better than I can. Thank you to my cousin Wink Lorch, Joan’s niece, for sharing it with me.  

Irmgard Joan Staple: Path-Breaking Canisius Scientist and Women’s Advocate Has Died

Joan Staple (known professionally as Dr. I.J. Lorch) passed away at the age of 99 on November 27, 2022, in her home at Canterbury Woods, Williamsville, New York.

A Professor of Biology at Canisius College for more than 30 years, Dr. Lorch also pioneered women’s studies programs at Canisius. Her ground-breaking research in the field of cell biology at the University of Buffalo was recognized by the New York Times and led to more than 30 publications in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

Early Life and Education

Dr. Lorch was born into a Jewish family in Offenbach am Main, Germany. Her father was a co-owner of Rowenta, the innovative electric appliance brand. Her family escaped the Nazis by fleeing to Birmingham, England in 1938. Lorch’s forced emigration from Germany is marked by a series of Stolpersteine — commemorative bronze plaques — set into the sidewalk outside her former home at 19 August Bebel Ring.

She attended public schools in Offenbach until 1935 when Jewish children were banned from secondary education. After emigrating, she continued her education at King Edwards High School for Girls and later graduated from Birmingham University. She went on to earn a PhD in histochemistry from the University of London in 1949.

Scientific Career

As one of the very few women working in the ‘hard sciences’ at that time, she continued her post-doctoral research on cellular aging at Kings College, London. Rosalind Franklin worked in the lab next door. The many challenges facing women in building scientific careers are well documented in the struggle to properly credit Franklin for her critical role in discovering the structure of DNA.

In 1952, Dr. Lorch married Dr. Peter H. Staple, research dentist and fellow post-doctoral student. For the next 10 years she became a homemaker raising two sons and over-seeing the family’s move to Birmingham, Alabama in 1959, and then to Buffalo in 1963.

Once in Buffalo, Dr. Lorch rejoined her King’s College mentor and colleague, James Danielli, who was then the Director of The Center for Theoretical Biology at the University of Buffalo. The team was funded by NASA and carried out pioneering work on how cells age and whether living cells can be created from cellular components. This work came to a spectacular conclusion from the controversy created by the Nov. 13, 1970 New York Times article declaring that University of Buffalo scientists had documented “the first artificial synthesis of a living and reproducing cells”. Hundreds of media outlets picked up on the story that UB scientists were creating living cells that might be shipped by NASA on spaceships to Mars.

These reports misrepresented the research and the ensuing publicity upended the  research agenda. In 1973, Dr. Lorch left the University of Buffalo accepting an offer from Canisius College. 

She shifted her professional focus from research to teaching becoming Professor and Chair of the Department of Biology. To address the discrimination against women in scientific fields, with the support of the Canisius College leadership, she spent over 20 years training and hiring women scientists and also broadening the scope for women’s participation in the management of the College. Dr. Lorch founded the women’s studies program at Canisius, now called Women and Gender Studies. She created a course for non-majors called the Biology of Women (sex ed for college kids) that soon attracted so many men that she had to limit enrollment.

In recognition of her devoted advocacy for women, in 1992 Canisius established the annual I. Joan Lorch Award to “honor a person who has made a significant contribution to women and who exemplifies the pursuit of liberation and justice regarding sex, gender, and sexuality.”

Following her retirement from Canisius in 2003, Dr. Lorch published a two-volume memoir: Chance and Choice (2007) and Change and Challenge (2009).

As recounted in her memoir, Dr. Lorch witnessed many of the 20th century’s historic events. She saw Hitler speak at the opening of an autobahn near Frankfurt in 1935, and Martin Luther King at Kleinhans Music Hall in Buffalo in 1967. She personally knew the discoverers of DNA (Watson, Crick and Franklin) and saw the fruits of her own research on amoeba used for cloning new organisms.

In 2019, Canisius College awarded Dr. Lorch the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters to celebrate “her exceptional achievements in scientific research, unwavering dedication as an educator and for being a steadfast advocate for women.”

Since learning to ski as child in Switzerland, Dr. Lorch was also an avid outdoors woman. She skied well into her eighth decade in Europe and North America and was also an active member of the Adirondack Mountain Club. In recent years, she loved playing Scrabble with her family and connecting on-line daily with other players of “Words with Friends”.

She was pre-deceased by her husband of almost 60 years, Dr. Peter Staple, Professor of Oral Biology at the University of Buffalo’s Dental School. She is survived by her sons Gregory (Siobhan) of Chevy Chase, Maryland, and Alan of Chestertown, Maryland; four grandchildren, Nicole, Nico, Justin and Camille; and one great grandchild, Naomi Joan.

A memorial service will be held at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Amherst in 2023. Donations, in lieu of flowers, should be made to Hospice & Palliative Care Buffalo.

A more abbreviated version of her obituary appeared here in The Buffalo News on December 4, 2022.

Joan’s life and career are an inspiration. She overcame leaving her homeland, adjusting to two different countries (and two different regions within the US), learning English, separating from her family, facing prejudice and discrimination, and nevertheless having a highly successful career balanced with a highly successful family life. Her two memoirs taught me so much about grace and strength and persistence.

18 thoughts on “Irmgard Johanna (Joan) Lorch Staple (1923-2022): A Woman Ahead of Her Times

  1. I’m so sorry for your loss…Joan sounds like an inspiring woman who overcame a lot to take her place in the academic world, while also raising a family. Her books look very interesting. So happy she and her family were able to get out of Germany in time!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. An incredible woman who left her mark on the world. The importance of that mark is even greater knowing how she escaped from a terror that probably killed hundreds just like her who never had an opportunity to leave their mark.

    Thank you again for bringing life to so many remarkable people.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Ted. Yes, it is awful to imagine how many brilliant minds we lost because of the Holocaust—not just those who were killed, but the potential descendants of those who were killed. Millions, not just hundreds.


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