Robert Earl Karper, agriculturalist, was born near Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, on October 9, 1888, the son of William Edward and Della Emma (Laughlin) Karper. He graduated from Kansas State College in 1914 with a B.S. degree in agronomy. In 1914–15 he taught and conducted research in agronomy at Oklahoma A&M College. On March 8, 1915, he married Sophia Grace Dickinson; they had two sons.
Karper was appointed superintendent of the Texas Agricultural and Mechanical College Experiment Station at Lubbock in 1915. Largely as a result of station research, improved grain sorghum varieties became an important money crop on the Texas South Plains (see SORGHUM CULTURE). Karper was made assistant director of the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station System in 1925 (see AGRICULTURAL EXPERIMENT STATION SYSTEM). In 1928 he received an M.S. degree from Texas A&M and was appointed the school's vice director and agronomist in charge of sorghum investigations. At his own request he returned to the Lubbock experiment station in 1940 to devote full time to sorghum research. During World War II, when shipments of tapioca from the Orient were interrupted, Karper worked successfully with the General Foods Corporation to develop a waxy sorghum starch substitute for it. Under his influence the Lubbock Experiment Station introduced the Arizona cypress and Chinese elm to the Lubbock area; a grove of trees in Mackenzie State Park was named for him.
Karper was selected Man of the Year in Texas Agriculture in 1944, and in 1947 he was elected Fellow of the American Society of Agronomy. He began work with the Rockefeller Foundation in developing sorghum farming in Mexico and Latin America in 1954 and helped establish the foundation's large experimental station in Bogotá, Colombia. In 1957 Karper was awarded an honorary doctor of science degree by Texas Technological College (now Texas Tech University). He retired in 1958, but as agronomist emeritus at Texas A&M he continued his experiments in sorghums. He died in Scottsdale, Arizona, on February 7, 1965.