Dr. Sterling B. Hendricks, 78, a retired official of the Department of Agriculture, where he received some of the government's highest honors for his work as a chemist, and a mountain climber of note, died Sunday in a hospital in Novato, Calif. He had Guillain Barre syndrome, a neurologic disorder.

A longtime resident of Silver Spring and an area resident since the 1920s, Dr. Hendricks was visiting his daughter, Martha O'Neill, at the time he was stricken.

Dr. Hendricks was a chemist at Agriculture from 1928 to 1970. For the last 13 of those years, he was chief scientist of the department's Mineral Nutrition Pioneering Research Laboratory. Since then, he had been a consultant to the department.

The author of more than 200 technical publications, Dr. Hendricks did research on the physical-chemical aspects of the structures of solids, the synthesis of waxes and rubber in plants, the control of plant growth by light and other aspects of the chemistry of plant life.

In 1958, he became one of five government officials chosen as the first recipients of the President's Award for Distinguished Civilian Service, the highest honor given to career civil servants. Others honored that year included FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and Ambassador Charles E. (Chip) Bohlen.

Dr. Hendricks' citation said: "His discoveries in soil clays, phosphate minerals, radio-isotopes, plant physiology and fundamental chemistry make him one of the most distinguished and honored scientists of our time."

In 1952, he received the Department of Agriculture's Distinguished Service Award. In 1976, President Gerald R. Ford presented him with the National Medal of Sciences.

In 1938, Dr. Hendricks won the Hillebrand Prize of the Chemical Society of Washington for his work in identifying the structures of chemical compounds by the use of X-rays.In 1960, he won a Rockefeller Public Service Award, and two years lter was co-winner of the Hoblitzelle Award in the Agricultural Sciences for his research on light-sensitive plant pigment controls.

As a mountaineer, Dr. Hendricks was a member of the Alpine Clubs of the United States and Canada. During the 1930s, Canadian authorities officially recognized that he had climbed four previously unscaled heights in the British Columbian Rockies.

In 1942, he was a member of the third party to conquer Mount McKinley in Alaska, North America's highest mountain. In 1957, he and other climbers who were roped together plunged more than 250 feet down the side of a mountain. Despite a broken shoulder, he hiked several miles to get help for his comrades. He was a member of the research and exploration committee of the National Geographic Society.

His professional memberships included the American Chemical and American Physics societies. He was a president of both the American Mineralogical Society and the Society of Plant Physiology. He was a chairman of the botany section of the National Academy of Sciences.

Dr. Hendricks was a native of Elysian Fields, Tex., and a 1922 graduate of the University of Arkansas. He earned a master's degree in chemistry at Kansas State University in 1924, and a doctoral degree in chemistry, mathematical physics and physics at the California Institute of Technology in 1926.

He came to Washington in 1926 to work for the Carnegie Institution's geophysical laboratory, spent a year with the Rockefeller Institute of Medical Research in New York City, and then returned here to begin his career at the Department of Agriculture.

In addition to his daughter, of Novato, Dr. Hendricks' survivors include his wife, Edith Ochiltree Hendricks of Silver Spring; a brother, Thomas A., of Lakewood, Calif.; two sisters, Mrs. Walter Freyburger of Bartlesville, Okla., and Mrs. A. B. Kerr of California, and two grandchildren.