Richard “Dick” Burgess grew up in Seattle, Washington, received a BS in Chemistry in 1964 at Caltech where he played varsity basketball. In 1969 he received a PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from Harvard University, where he studied with James Watson. After a Postdoc in Geneva, Switzerland, he joined the McArdle Laboratory for Cancer Research at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1971.
He is internationally recognized as the discoverer of the first positive transcription factor, sigma factor, and of the subunit structure of the centrally-important enzyme, RNA polymerase. His research career focused on the protein machinery of RNA synthesis and on the understanding of how genes are regulated both in normal cells and in cancer cells. Much of the subsequent research in this area is based on his pioneering discoveries. Burgess has received numerous awards for his research contributions, including the 1982 Pfizer Award, 1996 USDA Award, 1999 Waksman Medal, and was elected a 2003 Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology and a 2011 AAAS Fellow.
In the course of his research, Burgess became one of the leading experts in the science of protein purification. His extensive teaching, writing, and editing in this area has spread this expertise to a wide international audience. He has mentored 32 PhD, 9 MS students, and over 70 postdocs, visiting scientists, and undergraduates.
After a Guggenheim Fellowship sabbatical in a Seattle biotech company in 1983–84, he returned to UW–Madison to found the UW Biotechnology Center, which he directed until 1996. By providing shared instrumentation resources to the campus, to other universities in Wisconsin, and to the growing number of state biotech company start-ups, the Center allowed them access to state-of-the-art research tools to carry out cutting-edge research and remain competitive for scarce federal funding. Burgess also stimulated several multidisciplinary research programs, taking advantage of the diverse expertise on campus to do basic research on practical problems of importance to Wisconsin. This work led him to join the Wisconsin Academy Board in 2007, where he served until 2019.
To help to better educate the general public about the benefits of biotechnology, Burgess co-founded the Center for Biology Education and initiated, with UW–Extension, a developed an education program to train Wisconsin teachers to better teach biology and biotech and expose the public to the exciting biological sciences research happening on the UW campus. He also worked to commercialize biotech-related products, traveling locally and internationally to promote business development based on university research discoveries and encouraging researchers to consider entrepreneurial activities.
Burgess and his wife Ann love living in Madison where they raised two children. He enjoys rockhounding, amateur archaeology, winemaking, traveling, and playing with his four grandchildren.