Presented by the University Archives of the University Libraries, with the Department of Biochemistry of Virginia Tech
Fifty-Year Celebration of the Department of Biochemistry
Juel Albert: Faculty in the Department of Agricultural Chemistry and the Department of Biochemistry Juel Albert

Date of Interview: February 14, 2002
Location: Sound booth, Media Building, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Virginia
Interviewee: Juel Albert
Interviewer: Robert R. Schmidt
Transcriber: Sheila M. Early

Part One

Schmidt: My name is Robert Schmidt, and I'm here to interview Juel Albert on this 14 day of February 2002. For my history as an interviewer, I was an under- graduate student at Virginia Tech from 1951 to 1955, and that was the period of time when the department was established. I left Virginia Tech and went to the University of Maryland, where I received my Master's degree and returned to Virginia Tech in the Department of Biochemistry in 1957, worked on my Ph.D., and completed my Ph.D. in 1961. I was invited to stay as a faculty member in the department and worked in the department for 20 years. Because of my longevity in the department, it was thought that I might be a good person to interview some of the early members of the department, such as Juel Albert, who was with the Department of Agricultural Chemistry here before the Department of Biochemistry was established. And, he then joined the Department of Biochemistry and served as head of the analytical lab (forage testing), but also served an important role helping Dr. Engel, our Department Head, in the new department. So, Juel I'm turning the program over to you to let you fill us in on how you joined the initial department and then made the transition into the new department. We'd like to have you share with us, as an oral history, the things that happened back in the old days.

Albert: Okay, I'm Juel Albert. I joined the Department of Agricultural Chemistry on June 1, 1941, and went to work for H. H. Hill, who shortly after was made head of the department. I worked on different research projects under his direction for several years, and we had a lot of projects in conjunction with the Dairy Science Department, over there. You know, digestion trials, and so forth.

Schmidt: So was that analytical type stuff you were doing?

Albert: Yes, it was that and we would actually run the experiments up at the dairy barn. And later Woodrow Linkous and I started working together on these projects because we figured we could turn out about 3 times as much work, with 2 of us working together. I don't remember a lot of the projects we worked on. I do know when Dr. Engel came there in 1951 he got cooperation from all of us. By that time, James Ehart was acting head of the department and there was Nelson Price, Woodrow Linkous, Roddy Young and myself. Mary Cox was the secretary. As far as I'm concerned, we were very fortunate to have a head of the department to come in like Dr. Engel. I enjoyed my association with him the whole time he was there. I think he was great, really, and I enjoyed the different interactions. However, we lacked space. He said he would like to have a new building.

Schmidt: You were in Smyth Hall?

Albert: I told him, "Well Doc, if you work right hard and try to raise some money, it will take you about 8-10 years to get it." And it did! But he worked real hard, I guarantee you on that. But what I liked about him he would assign you a project of some type and then, if necessary, he would jump right in there and go help you you get it started. A lot of people wouldn't do that, but, he would assign these things to Woodrow and me and we would carry it out just to the very letter, just the way he wanted it. I believe it was in 1956 he had this project, with pre-teen girls, to define nutritional facts nobody knew, you know what they really needed. There were several states involved in this, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Alabama, I know those were all in it. We ran that experiment, but that was when Woodrow died and I had to run all our end of it by myself, but we accomplished it. We did that twice, but I can't remember the other date. This was part of a project that Dr. Engel got involved with and assigned us to do.

Schmidt: When did he start that project where he was feeding dogs garbage and so on with irradiated garbage?

Albert: Yes, I know, I was involved in that. Hired a boy to go over there and feed them and all this stuff.

Schmidt: I know it was shown that animals could eat irradiated garbage without any problems at all.

Albert: Yes.

Schmidt: I know Dr. Engel felt this might be a wave of the future, sterilizing food that way, and keeping contamination, like E. coli and things like that out of food, but people were afraid of the irradiated foods.

Albert: Yes, they were afraid to eat the irradiated foods.

Schmidt: I can't remember when that was - it must have been late fifties, early sixties, or something like that.

Albert: I'd say it was late fifties, but I'm not sure.

Albert: Anyway, Woodrow and I worked on that X-disease in cattle for nearly 3 years and finally found out what the problem was.

Schmidt: Dr. Wilson Bell was involved in that too, wasn't he?

Albert: Yes, he was right in there.

Schmidt: He was sort of like the project leader, wasn't he, on that particular project. I know Dr. Engel worked with him. He always gave Dr. Wilson Bell's research team the credit for doing that, so you worked with them on that project.

Albert: Woodrow and I did an awful lot of work with rats, and so forth, and so on, and calves. When we finally found out what the problem was, we had to dose some calves with hexofluronapthalene. Their eyeballs would actually pop out on the ground, you know. That stuff was potent.

Schmidt: What was it, I think a lubricant?

Albert: It was a grease - old farmers would buy 100 pound drum and use it for ten years, maybe. And the cattle would come along and lick it off, it didn't take much. You could inject a little in rat and just a few days later his liver was about twice as big as it ought to be. We did that, and went through a bunch of rats.

Schmidt: I remember you doing a lot of nitrogen analyses, Kjeldahl analyses.

Albert: Yes, we ran a lot of those - see that's what we did on that nutrition project with those pre-teen girls and over a period of years. I started analyzing certain samples for certain people in the agricultural departments and it got to be a pretty heavy load. Dr. Engel said one day, "I don't see why we don't just get some money for this." So he started getting money for forage testing, after which he developed.

Schmidt: So he was the one that started that [forage testing program]?

Albert: It had developed into a thing that we were doing so much forage testing, you know, statewide, we had to spend nearly all of our time doing that. And another thing that we ran into, and I don't remember the dates on this, either Bob, but, the State had a problem with alfalfa hay. It had been recommended that they put heptachlor on there to control the alfalfa weevil. Low and behold, it would end up in the milk. And they were throwing out truckloads of milk because it was loaded with heptachlor. He came in one day and told me "Juel, I hate to ask you to do this, but we are going to have to do something. We are going to get a bunch of alfalfa hay samples in here and we will have to sample everything in the state from dairy farms." I forget, we got something like 2,000 samples in there [Department of Biochemistry and Nutrition].

Schmidt: Wow!

Albert: I would handle them and process them and give them to Roddy, and he would extract them and then he would haul them to Richmond, and they would read them in the same instrument down there.

Schmidt: So you would use a ball mill to grind the samples. Is that what you were doing?

Albert: No, we were using one of those Wiley mills.

Schmidt: Oh Wiley mills, I remember those.

Albert: But, anyway, when they would come in I'd process them, catalog them, and put the farmer's name with them and everything. Then when the results came back I'd put the results with them. The people would come in there and want to know what their heptachlor amounted to. I never will forget some guy came in one day, with his overalls on. He looked at me and said, "I come over here to find out about my heptachlor," and I looked and his was twice the size of anybody's in the state. [laughter] I said "Sir, how in the world did you get so much heptachlor in your alfalfa, and he said, "well, where it calls for a pound I'd always put (in) two."

Schmidt: Oh my! [laughter]

Albert: That's the way he got his so high. But that was a project that required quite a bit of work.

Schmidt: I can see that.

Albert: That was in the sixties, I believe.

Schmidt: Yes, I'm trying to remember too when I was a student and when I was a faculty member. I became a faculty member in 1961 and I'm trying to remember what you were doing then. I can remember more of what you were doing after I was a faculty member than when I was a student, because my nose was on the lab bench. I was glued to the lab bench most of the time.

Albert: Yes, well we got our place all fixed up and that was when they wanted to move us out.

Schmidt: So you and Nelson Price worked in Forage Testing, right in there [first floor of Department of Biochemistry and Nutrition Building].

Albert: Yes, down there. Nelson Price worked with the minerals.

Schmidt: He worked with the mineral analysis. You had some technicians working for you, didn't you?

Albert: Oh yes, I had several. I had Mike Nunn. Remember him. Mike's dead.

Schmidt: Oh no, I didn't know that.

Albert: Yes, he died, and then shortly after, about a year or so later, his wife died. I couldn't believe that.

Schmidt: I can remember Mike.

Albert: Oh, I had a bunch of technicians over a period of years.

Schmidt: I can remember the faces, but cannot remember the names.

Albert: Yes. Claudine Kirk worked in there for me and Judy Baker worked in there. She took over the place when I left. And I understand she has pancreatic cancer now, and she's retired. She retired as a result of that.

Schmidt: Wow. Well tell me a little bit about when the department was being planned. You shared some of this with me before we started taping, but when Dr. Engel decided he was going to need a new building. What actually went into the planning of that? How did you go about this?

Albert: Well you have the architects there on the campus, they help design those buildings. Then Smith & Boynton did the finals on it. They designed the building and then you tell them what you want in it. And that's what we did, that's what Dr. Engel and I did, we'd tell them. We decided we wanted two offices in each one of those (laboratory) spaces. You remember how yours was?

Schmidt: Yes, sure.

Albert: All of them were just alike, except Dan Lane's was a little different because of the radioactivity he was working with.

Schmidt: That's right.

Albert: And, we spent an awful lot of time designing all that stuff and changing this and changing that to suit different ones, and I know my facility, I designed it all myself. Just wrote down what I wanted and made a little diagram, of this and of that, and it worked out fine.

Schmidt: Who's idea was it to have the compressors in the basement, the air compressors to supply the air to the whole building? Was that an idea you had?

Albert: That was ours, we decided to have that in there. They got campus compressed air after that; it was for the whole campus.

Schmidt: I know, I had to use the building air though, because I was growing algae and there was something in the campus air that injured the algae. I had to use the big compressors down in the basement. I continued using those.

Albert: I remember that. We put that still, you remember, upstairs. And put a 550 gallon stainless steel tank up there to supply the distilled water to the whole building.

Schmidt: That tank turned out, you remember how it would fill with salt residue and everything and would have to be cleaned out periodically.

Albert: Yes, I sure do. Anyway we decided to put that in there and use that plastic pipe. I don't know if you remember or not but we had a lot of trouble with that to start with.

Schmidt: Yes, I remember. It was leaking all over the place until you used a different type of glue or something.

Albert: Yes, I got Mr. Boynton, up there, the architect. I took him down to the basement and I got Mike to turn on one of the valves up in my lab, went the whole way. And you turn that thing on and that pipe was just like this.

Schmidt: It quivered.

Albert: I told Mr. Boynton, now something's got to be done. He had the plumbing contractor put a channel - channel iron, and lay that plastic pipe in that channel to keep it from vibrating like that. Then they also used a different type glue on it.

Schmidt: I remember they went through and re-glued everything.

Albert: Had to re-do the whole works.

Schmidt: Was that after we had moved in?

Albert: Yes, that was after we had moved into the building. And you remember we had, I forget what the fella's name was, a guy from the plumbing department stayed there for over a year, and took care of problems. Everytime somebody had a problem, they'd tell me and I'd get him to repair it.

Schmidt: Your memory is better than mine. [laughter] Of course you were dealing with the problems and I was just benefiting from the results after things were done.

Albert: I tell you Dr. Engel was sharp as a tack when it come to this stuff. I don't think he forgets anything.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

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