A Collection in
the Special Collections
Collection Number Ms2003-009
Special Collections, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State UniversitySpecial Collections
P.O. Box 90001
Blacksburg, Virginia 24062-9001
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Fax: (540) 231-3694
© 2004 By Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. All rights reserved.
Processed by: Tamara Kennelly Special Collections Staff
Collection is open to research.
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Department of Biochemistry Oral History Collection, Ms2003-009, Special Collections, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Va.
The Department of Biochemistry Oral History Collection was donated to the Special Collections in 2001-2003. Individual interviews and oral history transcripts were donated as they were completed and became available.
The Department of Biochemistry was established at Virginia Polytechnic Institute through the leadership of Dr. H. N. Young, director of the Agricultural Experiment Station. In 1952, he recruited Dr. R. W. Engle from Auburn University. As the first department head (1952-1966) of the Department of Biochemistry and Nutrition, Engel pulled together faculty from existing departments with interests in agricultural chemistry and nutrition. Facilities in Price and Smyth Halls soon became inadequate, and with Engel's leadership, funds were acquired from the National Institutes of Health and matched by funds from the Commonwealth of Virginia for construction of the building now called Engel Hall. From 1962, when the building was occupied, through 1967, additions to the faculty broadened the research expertise of the department. Significant impact on basic and applied nutrition and analytical service to the Commonwealth characterized these initial fifteen years.
Kendall King served as head from 1966 to 1968. The department awarded only graduate degrees until the undergraduate biochemistry curriculum was established in 1968. A faculty committee comprised of Clemens Ackerman, Robert R. Schmidt, and Ryland Webb led the department from 1968 to 1970. Bruce M. Anderson provided stable leadership as head from 1970 to 1982. During this period, significant changes in facilities and services accompanied the emphasis on basic research. Thomas W. Keenan (head, 1982-1988) shepherded careers of faculty and growth in the undergraduate program. In 1988, Judith S. Bond, the fifth department head (1988-1992), established significant changes in laboratories, supported new faculty, and facilitated faculty efforts in the successful dedication of the biochemistry building to honor R. W. Engel.
During the 1990s, the university sustained huge reductions in operating funds while undergraduate enrollments increased. Under William E. Newton's leadership (1992-1998), faculties were merged between the Department of Biochemistry and Nutrition and the Anaerobe Lab. Subsequently, the present Department of Biochemistry was identified. In 1994, the department was recognized as University Exemplary Department for its commitment to employing research successfully, as a foundation for undergraduate education.
Four new faculty members joined the department since 1998. Faculty in spring of 2003 included a complement of seventeen scientists and educators with John L. Hess as department head (1998-). Two faculty members had laboratories in the Fralin Biotechnology Center, a state-of-the art research and teaching facility adjoining Engel Hall. Faculty employed a broad spectrum of research tools to explore how organisms function and to assess unique attributes which many be developed to serve humankind. Faculty research programs and collaborations were in core areas: functional genomics and proteomics, molecular microbiology, and molecular mechanisms of response to stress and disease. In 2002-2003, faculty provided education and training for 25 graduate and 300 undergraduate majors.
The Department of Biochemistry Oral History Collection spans the years 1952 to 2005 (bulk 2001-2005, the period during which the oral histories were collected). It includes interviews with R.W. Engel, founding head of the department; Juel Albert, early faculty member; Bruce Anderson, department head, 1970-1982; Cecil Cummins, professor emeritus of microbiology and faculty in the Anaerobe Lab; Robert Smibert, faculty in the Anaerobe Lab, Everett L. Wisman, first faculty member; and Roddy Young, early faculty member. The founding of the Department of Biochemistry and Nutrition including faculty, facilities and equipment, instruction, and research is given special attention. The founding of the Anaerobe Lab is also discussed.
In the interview of Juel Albert by Robert S. Schmidt, Albert discussed planning for the Department of Biochemistry and Nutrition, including facilities and apparatus, such as the Kjeldahl apparatus; department faculty; and research projects, including forage testing and analyses and a multi-state project on nutrition of pre-adolescent girls.
In his interview by Thomas O. Sitz, Bruce M. Anderson spoke of his charge as Head of the Department of Biochemistry and Nutrition to convert the department into an independent research oriented department rather than an analytical tool for other agricultural sciences at the university. The interview covered claiming the biochemistry building for the Department of Biochemistry so that it could expand in numbers of faculty and research laboratories. This involved relocating people that were not in the department. Anderson also set up the mass-spectroscopy facility and developed the undergraduate program. The interview also touched on Anderson's research in enzymology.
The R. W. Engel interview by George Edwin Bunce explored Engel's vision for the new department, early faculty, inter-departmental relationships, background on how the department obtained grants and other funding for the new building, and Engel's work with Kendall King on the Mothercraft Centers in the Philippines.
The Robert Smibert interview by John Hess explored the establishment of the Anaerobe Lab at Virginia Tech. Smibert also talked about his work with anaerobes; the Anaerobe Manual; laboratory equipment and techniques; research focus on ruminant disease, nutrition and human health; projects, including working with campylobacter; and achievements of the Anaerobe Lab.
In his oral history interview by Lewis Barnett, Everett L. Wisman discussed the beginnings of the Department of Biochemistry and Nutrition, including courses, faculty, and facilities; Virginia Tech in the 1940s; and various changes in Virginia Tech and the campus.
The interview of Roderick Young by Robert Schmidt dealt with the groundwork behind starting the Department of Biochemistry including the role played by his father, Dr. Harold Newell Young; selection of faculty for the new department; the column Roderick Young developed for separating amino acids; research interests of the department; the department's teaching program; the first black female graduate student on campus; and the pesticide program.
The interview of Cecil Cummins by John Hess focuses on the history of the Anaerobe Lab and on some of the research that was conducted in that facility.
Full text of most of the interviews and selected sound clips as well as images and other documents about the history of the Department of Biochemistry and its faculty are available in the Internet site, 50- Year Celebration of the Department of Biochemistry, 1952-2003: http://spec.lib.vt.edu/archives/depthistory/biochem/
The collection is arranged alphabetically by interviewee.
Juel Albert first joined the Department of Agricultural Chemistry in 1941 as Laboratory Technician before the Department of Biochemistry was established. As Laboratory Specialist in the Department of Biochemistry and Nutrition, he served as head of the Analytical Laboratory (forage testing) and assisted Dr. Engel in starting the new department. Albert worked for approximately 30 years in the Departments of Agricultural Chemistry and Biochemistry and Nutrition and then approximately another 13 years in the Forage Testing Laboratory after transfer of his unit to Litton-Reaves Hall.
Bruce M. Anderson was educated at Ursinus College (B.S., 1964), Purdue (M.S., 1965), and Johns Hopkins (Ph.D., 1958). He helped set up the new biochemistry department at Brandeis University and later accepted an assistant professorship at the University of Louisville Medical School. In 1963, he helped set up the new biochemistry department at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. He was the Head of the Department of Biochemistry at Virginia Tech from 1970-1982 and then continued on as faculty in the department until he retired in 1998. He was appointed Emeritus Professor in 1998.
An expert in the cell wall, Cecil Cummins joined the anaerobic bacteria laboratory of the veterinary science department at Virginia Tech in 1967. A native of Cork, Ireland, Cummins received his M.D. and Doctor of Science degree from Trinity College, University of Dublin. His major was bacteriology. During World War II, he served as a medical officer in the Royal Army Medical Corps. As a reader in bacteriology at the London Hospital Medical College, he taught bacteriology to medical, dental, and nursing students and supervised the activities of graduate students in bacteriology.
Ruben W. Engel earned the Ph.B. and the Ph. D. (1939) from the University of Wisconsin. He was the founding Head of the Department of Biochemistry and Nutrition in 1952 and served in that position until 1966. He was Professor of Biochemistry and Nutrition and Nutritionist, Agricultural Experiment Station, 1952-1956. He was then Professor of Biochemistry and Associate Dean of Research and Graduate Studies, College of Agriculture. He maintained an aggressive research program in nutrition, and in 1967, he became fully committed to the application of basic nutritional knowledge in the USAID-sponsored projects in the Philippines until he retired in 1978. His many honors include the Elvehjem award for Distinguished Public Service in Nutrition and the dedication of Engel Hall in recognition of his service to the university and his contributions as scientist and humanitarian.
Robert M. Smibert was educated at the University of Connecticut (B.S., M.S.) and the University of Maryland (Ph.D.). He worked at Temple University Medical School and came to Virginia Tech in the Department of Veterinary Science in 1960. He was in the group of faculty that founded the Anaerobe Lab, headed by W. E. C. Moore. He was Professor of Veterinary Science and Professor of Bacteriology. After his retirement in 1990, he was appointed Emeritus Professor.
Everett Lee Wisman was the first faculty member hired by Dr. Engel in the new Department of Biochemistry and Nutrition. Wisman was educated at Virginia Tech (B.S., 1946), Cornell University (M.S.), and Penn State (Ph.D.). In addition to his work in biochemistry, he was Associate Poultry Nutritionist, Agricultural Experiment Station, 1952-1956 and Associate Professor of Poultry Nutrition, 1956 to 1958.
Roderick Whiter Young was the son of Harold Newell Young, head of the Department of Agricultural Economics and of the Department of Rural Sociology and later Director of the Agriculture Experiment Station. Roderick Young was educated at Virginia Tech (B.S., M.S.). He was Assistant Chemist, Agricultural Experiment Station, 1949-1956, Associate Professor of Poultry Nutrition 1956-1958 and then Assistant Professor of Biochemistry and Nutrition. After his retirement, he was appointed Associate Professor Emeritus, Department of Biochemistry.
Source: John Hess, "Celebrating 50 Years of Accomplishment: Department of Biochemistry, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University," in Department of Biochemistry reunion booklet, Blacksburg, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, 2003.
Box 2-1Juel Albert interview microcassette, February 14, 2002
Box 2-2Bruce M. Anderson interview cassette, copy 1 February 7, 2002
Box 2-3Bruce M. Anderson interview cassette, copy 2 February 7, 2002
Box 2-4Bruce M. Anderson interview DAT master, February 7, 2002
Box 2-5R. W. Engel interview cassette, copy 1 October 3, 2001
Box 2-6R. W. Engel interview cassette, copy 2 October 3, 2001
Box 2-7R. W. Engel interview DAT master, October 3, 2001
Box 2-8Robert M. Smibert interview cassette, June 19, 2002
Box 2-9Robert M. Smibert DAT master, June 19, 2002
Box 2-10Robert M. Smibert DAT safety copy, June 19, 2002
Box 2-11E. L. Wisman interview cassette, copy 1 January 22, 2002
Box 2-12E. L. Wisman interview cassette, copy 2 January 22, 2002
Box 2-13E. L. Wisman interview DAT master January 22, 2002
Box 2-14Roderick Young interview cassette, copy 1 November 20, 2001
Box 2-15Roderick Young interview cassette, copy 2 November 20, 2001
Box 2-16Roderick Young interview DAT master November 20, 2001
Box 2-17Cecil Cummins interview cassette, copy 1 March 17, 2005
Box 2-18Cecil Cummins interview cassette, copy 2 March 17, 2005
Box 2-19Cecil Cummins interview DAT master March 17, 2005
Box 2-20Cecil Cummins interview DAT copy March 17, 2005