Larry Robinson, an African American, started his college education at LeMoyne-Owen College and graduated from Memphis State University, now the University of Memphis, in 1979 with summa cum laude honors and a B.S. degree in chemistry. He received a Ph.D. in nuclear chemistry from Washington University in St. Louis in 1984. In that year, he joined the research staff of Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), where he was a research scientist and served as a group leader. He left ORNL in 1997 to accept a faculty position at FAMU.
At FAMU, Robinson became director of the university’s Environmental Sciences Institute. In addition to conducting research on environmental chemistry of coastal ecosystems, he had a leadership role in establishing new B.S. and Ph.D. degree programs. In 2003, he became FAMU provost and vice president for academic affairs, serving until 2005. In 2007 he became the university’s chief operating officer and vice president for research, and served for several weeks as the school’s interim president. In May 2010, he left that position to become Assistant Secretary for Conservation and Management in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In November 2011 he returned to FAMU as a professor and special assistant, and in March 2012 he was named provost and vice president for academic affairs.
In July 2012, the FAMU Board of Trustees appointed Robinson to serve as the university’s interim president, replacing James H. Ammons. Ammons had resigned from the FAMU presidency in the midst of controversy related to university oversight of the school’s marching band after the hazing-related death of a student drum major.
One of Robinson’s primary research interests is environmental chemistry, including the detection of trace elements in environmental matrices by nuclear methods.In 1991, while at ORNL, Robinson was a participant in a well-publicized investigation into the cause of the death of 19th-century U.S. President Zachary Taylor. When Taylor died rather suddenly in 1850, the cause of his death was listed as gastroenteritis, but some historians thought he might have been poisoned with arsenic. His descendants gave permission for his remains to be exhumed in order to allow analysis of tiny samples of his hair and fingernails. With ORNL’s High Flux Isotope Reactor as a neutron source, Robinson and colleagues used neutron activation analysis to measure arsenic levels in the samples. The analysis led to a finding that Taylor did not die from arsenic poisoning, as arsenic was not detected in the samples, indicating that arsenic concentrations were many times lower than would be expected in arsenic poisoning.