Dr. Matthew F. Norton, 55, chairman of the chemistry department at American University who died last week in an apparent sailing accident in Chesapeake Bay, was described by a colleague as a modern Renaissance Man.

As evidence of his breadth of interest, it was noted that although he was trained as a geologist, he became a professor of chemistry, and was one of the most popular teachers in that department.

As many as 150 students commonly enrolled in his course, "Spaceship Earth," designed for those not majoring in science.

In addition to holding master's and doctoral degrees in geology from Columbia University he earned a master's degree from Columbia in musicology, and was principal organist at St. Michael's Episcopal Church in Arlington. He also had directed the church choirs there.

A linguist who spoke German, French and Spanish, Dr. Norton served during World War II as a cryptanalyst with U.S. Armed Forces in Europe, helping to decipher German codes.

Dr. Norton's body was recovered about 6 p.m. Friday from the lower Chesapeake Bay about two or three miles from the Mathews County, Va., shoreline and about one-half mile from where his 20-foot sailboat was anchored, with its sails furled.

Mathews County Sheriff Spencer Hodges said that death has been attributed to drowning and is believed accidental.

Dr. Norton, a Woodbridge, Va., resident, set out Aug. 18 from Occoquan Bay, heading for a marina in Gloucester County, Va. The last entry in his log was made 2 p.m. Tuesday, and reported calm seas. Shortly afterward, a severe wind and rainstorm swept the bay. Sheriff Hodges said it is assumed that Dr. Norton was thrown overboard after anchoring his boat.

Dr. Norton, a native of New York City, joined the geology department at AU in 1958, the year he received hia PhD. After the department, which he had headed, was disbanded, he joined the chemistry department, becoming chairman in 1975.

In 1966, his wife and several students weathered a heavy squall on the Red Sea while on a projected 14-month round-the-world trip in a 72-foot schooner to study volcanoes.

In addition to his wife, Annette H. of the home, survivors include a brother, Bill, of San Antonio, Tex.

The family requests that expressions of sympathy be made in the form of donations to the Matthew F. Norton memorial fund, c/o the chemistry department, American University, Washington.