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Dr. Michael Beer, environmentalist

Colleges and UniversitiesScientific ResearchJohns Hopkins UniversityUniversity of Michigan

Dr. Michael Beer, former chairman of the department of biophysics at the Johns Hopkins University who was an environmentalist who worked diligently to clean up and protect Stony Run and the Jones Falls, died Aug. 22. He was 88.

Dr. Beer was dining with his companion, Patricia Laidlaw, at her Roland Park home when he was stricken with a heart attack. He was taken to Union Memorial, where he was pronounced dead, said his daughter, Suzanne C. Beer of Middle River.

"In the early days of molecular microscopy he was one of the key figures," said Dr. Bertrand Garcia-Moreno, chairman of the department of biophysics at the Johns Hopkins University.

"Mike was a soft-spoken man who had a gentle manner and was extremely generous. He liked to get involved with people," said Dr. Garcia-Moreno. "He was very social but in a subdued way."

The son of Paul Beer, an industrial chemist, and Lidia Beer, an artist, Michael Beer was born in and spent his early years in Budapest, Hungary. Because of the rise of Nazism, he emigrated in 1939 with his family to Toronto.

A graduate of Trinity College, a Toronto high school, he earned a bachelor's degree in 1949 from the University of Toronto in physics and chemistry. In 1950, he earned a master's degree in applied mathematics, also from the University of Toronto.

He earned his Ph.D. in 1953 in physical chemistry from the University of Manchester in Manchester, England. From 1953 to 1954, Dr. Beer was a research associate in the department of physics at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he was later associate professor of physics from 1954 to 1956.

After completing a postdoctoral fellowship at the National Research Council of Canada, he joined the faculty of the Johns Hopkins University in 1958 as an associate professor of biophysics. In 1963, he was named professor in the department of physics.

He was chairman of the biophysics department at Hopkins from 1974 to 1980, and was associate dean of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at Homewood from 1989 to 1992.

Dr. Beer, who was an internationally known specialist in molecular microscopy, was recognized for his pioneering work in single-molecule electron microscopy.

Dr. Beverly Wendland, chairman of the biology department and interim dean of JHU's Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, said in a note to its staff that he was known "most notably for his proposal to determine the nucelotide sequence of DNA by direct visualization in the electron microscope, as well as for several additional advances in biological research."

"He and a colleague constructed one of the first scanning electron microscopes capable of differential imaging of individual atoms. The instrument was used to analyze the structure of molecules within chromosomes, muscle proteins, membranes and other components of cells," wrote Dr. Wendland.

"He was very supportive of young people and was a peace builder," said Dr. Garcia-Moreno. "He brought young faculty together with senior faculty from other disciplines over lunch or wine and cheese gatherings."

After Dr. Beer retired in 1995, his two full-time apostolates became Stony Run, a stream that meanders through North Baltimore's Evergreen neighborhood, and the Jones Falls, which rises in the Green Spring Valley and empties into the Inner Harbor.

A nature lover and resident since 1960 of Wilmslow Road in Evergreen, Dr. Beer inspired the movement in the mid-1980s that led volunteers and neighbors to plant shrubs and trees and maintain Stony Run Park, a 13-acre park between Wyndhurst Avenue and Cold Spring Lane that had been created along the stream banks in 1904 by the Olmsted Brothers.

He had increasingly become concerned that older, dying trees were not being replaced by the city. After convincing the city to stop mowing the park, which discouraged new growth, Dr. Beer and his volunteers raised money to purchase plants and then embarked on an ambitious planting campaign.

They planted dogwoods, pines, willows, magnolias, azaleas, birch, beech, alder, sycamore and ash trees, and Dr. Beer's particular favorite, a shagbark hickory, with its textured bark.

"Michael was truly the pied piper of the Jones Falls and Stony Run," said William Miller, an Evergreen resident who was the former head of the Greater Homewood Community Corp. "He always had a twinkle in his eye, wore a red felt cap, and enjoyed taking hikes and giving tours to one or 20 people of the Jones Falls."

"Over the last 40 years or so, Mike has been responsible for planting more than 1,000 saplings in the park — many of them now mature," said Douglas L. Frost, former vice president of development at the Maryland Institute College of Art, who was an Evergreen neighbor and volunteer.

In 1996, Dr. Beer explored the length of Stony Run, which enters the Jones Falls, through Wyman Park. He was shocked to discover that the Jones Falls' banks and waterway were strewn and clogged with trash.

"It was a junk heap filled with grocery carts, tires and rubble," he told the City Paper in a 1999 interview. "Nobody would go down there."

As he had done with Stony Run, he was a founder and later chairman and board member of the Jones Falls Watershed Association, which is now part of Blue Water Baltimore.

He organized a band of hardy volunteers who hauled out tons of trash — including automobiles, air-conditioning units, lumber, a dresser, plastic milk bottles and soda cans — and began planting trees and plants.

"It is our hope that upon discovering the Jones Falls, Baltimore will respect it as Paris respects the Seine, London the Thames, Budapest the Danube," Dr. Beer told The Baltimore Sun in 1999.

The effort resulted in the first annual Jones Falls Celebration, held in 1998, which shut down Interstate 83 for the day and allowed people to stroll along and view the waterway from the highway.

The dam at Lake Roland was opened, which allowed enough water for kayakers and canoeists to paddle from Robert E. Lee Park to Round Falls below Mount Vernon Mill.

Three years ago, Dr. Beer left his Evergreen home and moved to Roland Park Place, where he was successful in having a green roof installed over the retirement community's dining room. It contained a variety of special grasses and sedum that absorbs water, provides insulation, helps filter pollutants and reduces storm water runoff.

Dr. Beer was an accomplished nature photographer, skier, mountaineer and world traveler.

His wife of 55 years, the former Margaret Terry Peters, died in 2009.

Plans for a memorial service were incomplete.

In addition to his daughter and companion, Dr. Beer is survived by a son, W. Nicholas Beer of Bainbridge Island, Wash.; and a grandson. Another daughter, Wendy Beer, died in 2013.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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