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Ann Arbor 200

Dr. A. A. Christman: Biochemistry, Roses, & A Few Murder Mysteries


Adam A. Christman, 1939
Dr. Adam A. Christman, 1939, University of Michigan, Michiganensian

When Dr. Adam A. Christman died at the age of 97, he was known to many Ann Arbor residents simply as "the man who grows roses". Beyond the confines of his incredible gardens, he had also trained thousands of University of Michigan medical students, and hundreds of graduate students, in biochemistry, bacteriology, physiology, pharmacology, pharmacy, botany, and zoology. His pioneering medical research had assisted in solving multiple criminal cases, including uncovering the truth behind a young woman's murder. He was also a devoted historian of Ann Arbor, who humorously documented city life in a collection of short stories that grew into a novel. Christman wore many different hats throughout his time in Ann Arbor, and his contributions spanned literature, science, and the arts.

Early Life

Adam Arthur Christman was born December 11, 1895 at his family's farm home near Shannon, Illinois. He earned a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry at Grinnell College in 1917, just as World War I was escalating. Based on his education, the U. S. War Department assigned him a position at the Hercules Powder Company in Kenvil, New Jersey, where he worked as a chemist preparing high explosives (nitroglycerine, dynamite, & TNT). When the war ended, Adam attended the University of Illinois and completed a Ph.D in Chemistry. In September 1922, he joined the faculty of the University of Michigan Medical School. The following year he married Mary Josephine Stevens, who also hailed from Shannon, Illinois. The young couple moved into a small attic apartment on Ann Street in Ann Arbor.


Biochemistry Solves A Murder

Dr. Adam Christman's career at the University of Michigan spanned 42 years, from 1922 to his retirement in 1964. He moved up through the ranks of the physiological/biological chemistry/biochemistry department in the Medical School, and served as chairman of the department from 1953 to 1955. In research he worked on allantoin and purine metabolism, calcium metabolism, antimalarials, and muscle metabolism. He served as chairman of the U-M Russell Award Committee, chairman of the Medical School curriculum committee, and on the National Science Foundation selection committee. He also served as a consultant to Oak Ridge Nuclear Institute and in other similar capacities.

Known as a gifted teacher and scientist, Dr. Christman was particularly well known for a quantitative method he developed early in his career for the rapid determination of carbon monoxide in the blood. In 1932 he presented this work before the American Society of Biological Chemists in Philadelphia. Four years later, in 1936, his method was used to help solve a murder.

University Specialists Solve Mystery
University Specialists Solve Mystery, Ann Arbor Daily News, February 28, 1936

On January 5, 1936, 24-year-old expectant mother Bernice Blank died after a fire in her home in Maple Rapids, a small farm town north of Lansing. Her husband George had reportedly not been around when a stove exploded, and her death was ruled accidental asphyxiation. Just days after her burial, suspicious family members requested that her body be exhumed for an autopsy. The Michigan State Police reached out to the University of Michigan Pathology Department, bringing Dr. John C. Bugher and Dr. Herbert W. Emerson onto the case. Bugher found evidence that Mrs. Blank had been struck in the head multiple times. Familiar with Dr. Christman's work with carbon monoxide, Bugher called on him for assistance.

Organs and tissue samples were brought to Dr. Christman, who used his method of detecting carbon monoxide in blood and determined that the level was less than the smoke from a single cigarette. According to Christman's work, Mrs. Blank was dead before the fire began. Once Christman's method ruled out asphyxiation from smoke, Dr. Emerson examined the body and found chloroform in the brain, kidneys, liver and stomach. Together the three scientists determined that Mrs. Blank had received physical blows to her head and was killed with chloroform. The fire was likely intended to cover the crime.

Faced with the autopsy results, George Blank confessed to the murder of his wife over a financial argument. Dr. Christman would go on to share detection of carbon monoxide in the bloodstream with law enforcement officials and forensic scientists, and his method would be used to solve many more investigations. In future interviews, Dr. Christman often mentioned that the Blank murder case was memorable for him because a brother of Bernice Blank was a medical student in his laboratory. The brother had expressed his appreciation for Christman's work in solving the murder. George Blank was sentenced to life in prison.

Life Consulting Rosarian

When he wasn't working as a biochemist, Dr. Adam Christman could often be found in his rose garden. In 1928 the Christmans moved into a newly built home at 1613 Shadford Road, in the Burns Park neighborhood. In their backyard they grew vegetables, a few flowers, and had space reserved for playing croquet. According to Dr. Christman, “By 1933, probably because of articles in garden magazines, such as Better Homes and Gardens, we were persuaded that the help of a landscape architect was needed to design a beautiful garden.” On a whim, the Christmans had a dozen rose bushes included in the plan for their updated yard. Years later, when Christman's garden contained over 200 rose plants and he was an avid member of multiple rose-related organizations, he would look back at these first dozen rose bushes as his gateway into a lifelong hobby and passion.

Dr. Christman In His Garden
Dr. Christman & His Rose Garden, Ann Arbor News, June 1968

In 1936, the Ann Arbor Garden Club held a flower show, and Dr. Christman entered several of his roses for competition. One of them won a blue ribbon, and his interest in rose culture deepened. In 1937, Dr. Christman joined the National Rose Society (American Rose Society or A.R.S.) and the Detroit Rose Society. In 1945 he left the Detroit group in favor of the Greater Lansing Rose Society, which he belonged to until 1964. In 1964, he and eleven other local rose enthusiasts organized the Huron Valley Rose Society as part of the Great Lakes Division of the American Rose Society. By 1982 their group had grown to over one hundred members. Immersed in all aspects of rose growing and appreciation, Christman had become a true rosarian. On the occasion of his 90th birthday in 1985, friends presented him with a new rose cultivar, a dark red Grandiflora known as the "Adam Christman". Through the years he won numerous awards for roses he grew, as well as for his judging skills. In 1988 the American Rose Society made him a Life Consulting Rosarian, one of their highest honors. 

Dr. Christman & His WInning Rose
Dr. Christman & His Winning Rose, Ann Arbor News, June 1969



The Changing Scene

Ann Arbor: The Changing Scene
Christman's Self-Published Novel

In 1978 Dr. Adam Christman was approached about writing an article on growing roses for the Neighbors Page of the Ann Arbor News. He agreed to the task and wondered if readers would be interested in his observations of Ann Arbor from when he first arrived in 1922. This was the start of a regular series of articles known as "Ann Arbor Diary" that Christman would write from 1978 to March 1981, covering the history of the city and the University. Ann Arbor Diary covered topics like streetcars, victory gardens, notable residents, neighborhoods, and education, and all of the articles are laced together with humor and quirky observations. The stories were entertaining, and popular with readers of the newspaper, and serve as a record of many people and places that no longer exist in our city. When the series ended, after 45 installments, Dr. Christman self-published a book called "Ann Arbor: The Changing Scene", which included much of his Ann Arbor Diary writing as well as a few additional pieces. Although he never actually wrote about growing roses in his newspaper series, a rose article is included in his published book.


On the occasion of his 94th birthday, in 1989, it was announced that Dr. Christman had established the Adam A. and Mary J. Christman Graduate Student Fellowship in Biological Chemistry at the University of Michigan. The university's current description for the award, which still exists to this day, reads as follows: The Adam A. and Mary J. Christman Award is presented to an outstanding Ph.D student in the Biological Chemistry Department who has demonstrated excellence in her/his academic scholarship and research contributions. The recipient receives a cash award of $1,000. Dr. Christman died in Ann Arbor on September 23, 1993 at the age of 97. He currently rests in the Washtenong Memorial Park Mausoleum, where his location is easy to find because of the roses it is decorated with.

Read the entire text of Ann Arbor: The Changing Scene.

Mr. & Mrs. Robert Olmsted, Illinois Football Fans, Visit Ann Arbor In Their Custom Built Car, November 1956

Mr. & Mrs. Robert Olmsted, Illinois Football Fans, Visit Ann Arbor In Their Custom Built Car, November 1956 image
Published In:
Ann Arbor News, November 12, 1956
READY FOR MICHIGAN: Former Illinois residents Mr. and Mrs. Robert Olmsted, now of Dearborn, waved hello Saturday noon when they arrived in Ann Arbor for the Michigan-Illinois game in their homemade "Olmsted Custom XII." Olmsted, a University of Illinois engineering graduate, used parts ranging from a 1934 Plymouth to a 1956 Cadillac to build this unique vehicle. The motor is a V-12 Lincoln engine and the car runs on either bottled gas or gasoline. Olmsted started work on the car while he was still at Illinois in 1951 and completed it last year. It was a sad day for Illinois rooters as the U-M won 17-7.

Businessman 'Casey' Jones dies at 82

Businessman 'Casey' Jones dies at 82 image
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