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
Bruce M. Anderson: Head of the Department of Biochemistry and Nutrition, 1970-1981 Bruce M. Anderson

Date of Interview: February 7, 2002
Location: Sound booth, Media Building, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Virginia
Interviewee: Bruce M. Anderson
Interviewer: Thomas O. Sitz
Transcriber: Sheila M. Early

Part One

[Tape 1, Side 1]

Thomas Sitz: I'm Tom Sitz, associate professor of biochemistry. Actually, I have a long history with Virginia Tech. I was an undergraduate student in biology back in the sixties and actually worked in the department with Lewis Barnett and did undergraduate research with Bob Schmidt. When I wanted to become a graduate student in biochemistry, it was probably because of Bob Schmidt and Kendall King who strongly encouraged me to pursue a career in biochemistry. I got my Ph.D. degree in biochemistry in 1971, and, Bruce, you came, and we probably overlapped about a year.

Bruce Anderson: Yes.

Sitz: Why don't you go ahead and give us a little bit of background. You might want to start off with where you came from originally and then something about your academic background.

Anderson: All right. I was born in Detroit, Michigan but only lived there a little over six months. I was basically raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania during early life and went to high school there. Unfortunately I got caught in the Draft at the end of the Second World War and got drafted out of high school between 11th and 12th grade, and instead of being drafted in the infantry, I decided to join the air force. So I spent three years in the air force and actually obtained my high school diploma through the G.E.D. test, so I always tell people I have a Ph.D., but I never graduated high school.

After three years in the air force, I went to Ursinus College in Collegeville, which is about 40 miles west of Philadelphia-a small liberal arts college known for their sciences-and got my B.S. in chemistry there. I left the college and went to start a graduate program at Purdue University. I went into the biochemistry department at Purdue and started my graduate program there.

Sitz: What led you to go into biochemistry? Was this something you'd had an interest in for a long time?

Anderson: I got interested in it as a chemistry major. I actually had a good friend of mine at the college that had also got interested in biochemistry before I did, and he actually went to Purdue in biochemistry a year before I did and convinced me that rather than looking into industrial chemistry at that time-which was probably what was open to a B.S. degree in chemistry-that I should look into biochemistry because it was a rapidly growing field. So I took his advice and took an Eli Lilly Fellowship at Purdue University to start the graduate program in biochemistry there.

At that time at Purdue, it was interesting that as a graduate student you didn't have any choice as to your major professor or the project you would be working on a Ph.D. degree. These were two things that were assigned to you, and I started in with my projects there and realized that my interest was in enzymology, and at Purdue, I had no opportunity to study enzymes because I was in a different section of the biochemistry department. After two or three years, I decided that I wasn't going to get into the areas I was interested in.

I left Purdue with a master's degree, and I went to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore where I met Bill McElroy, who was head of the department there at the time. He told me to come on and start as a graduate student at the McCollum-Pratt Institute, which was not too long in existence at that time. It was a biochemistry institute that was devoted to enzymology and mineral studies as associated with enzymology.

It was interesting that mention has been made several times of Pratt and his involvement at Virginia Tech. There's an interesting story of McCollum. E. V. McCollum was a nationally known nutritionist at Wisconsin and Pratt with his Pratt-Whitney engine and his expertise. [They] were both on committees during the Second World War in Washington, and they got to discussing things. Pratt informed McCollum of his problems with his cattle in Virginia, and I had discussed this with McCollum. He used to visit this institute, and he claimed that Pratt was amazed that he went to see these cattle and diagnosed a manganese deficiency and told him to put some manganese in the salt licks out in the field, and that seemed to solve the problem. Pratt was amazed a man could look at cattle and see a manganese deficiency.

Pratt, then, with McCollum put up the money to establish the McCollum-Pratt Institute. I was fortunate to get a fellowship there and to start my studies with N. O. Kaplan. At the time, it was a very small group-about six or seven faculty there. Sidney Collowick was one of the other faculty, and the series, Methods and Enzymology, was just being initiated at that time. Sidney Collowick and Nathan Kaplan were starting the whole business with Methods and Enzymology.

Sitz: They were fairly well known enzymologists at that time.

Anderson: Oh, they were very well known. I did a lot of editing on the volume one of Methods and Enzymology, and my wife did a lot of the illustrations and graphs for the Methods and Enzymology. I finally had my wish to study enzymology, and working with N. O. Kaplan, I got into the beginnings of studies of pyridine nucleotides and was involved in the initial synthesis of structural analogs of pyridine nucleotides, NAD (nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide), and NADP (nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide phosphate). In fact, my Ph.D. thesis dealt with synthesis and the chemical characterization and enzymology of some 12 or 13 structural analogs of NAD.

I finished my Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins at a time when N. O. Kaplan (Dr. Kaplan) was offered a chairmanship of a new Department of Biochemistry at Brandeis University. He and Sidney Collowick and several others were going to go up and establish this new department in Waltham, Massachusetts. Dr. Kaplan convinced me to go along with him, having finished my Ph.D. degree, and to help setting up the new department.

So I went up to Brandeis University to help them with that. While there, one of the initial, early faculty that was hired for the new department was William P. Jenks who was fast becoming an authority in enzyme mechanisms and chemical catalysis. Recognizing what this man had to offer, I decided to stay there two years and do a post-doctoral study with Dr. Jenks. I finished my post-doctoral work in 1960 with him, and we had published papers on the pyridine nucleotide coenzyme systems. Under his tutelage, we did some early work on mechanism of chymotrypsin and trypsin and other proteolytic enzymes like that.

At the end of this two-year post-doc, I accepted an assistant professorship at the University of Louisville Medical School. I went there in 1960, and at that school, I taught biochemistry to the medical students, dental students, and graduate students in biochemistry. In 1963 I got a call from Dr. Kenneth Monty who is a friend from Johns Hopkins days, and he had been offered a chairmanship of a new department at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Tennessee. So he convinced me I should go to Knoxville, Tennessee to help set up a new department there.

Sitz: So you had all this experience setting up departments.

Anderson: I had quite a lot of experience setting up new departments of biochemistry. So I went there and actually went up the rankings rather quickly. When I went to Knoxville, I went as an associate professor and in 1967 became professor of biochemistry there. Then in 1970, I was contacted as a candidate for the headship at Virginia Tech. And I came up to interview here at Virginia Tech for this position.

Sitz: I remember when you came - we were going through a series of interviews for that position.

Anderson: Yes, it was my understanding that the department had been without a department head for a year to year and a half, something like that. The department was being run by a committee being chaired by Dr. Ryland Webb at the time. And the university had had a committee of well-known biochemists from around the country to come in and evaluate the Department of Biochemistry and Nutrition at Virginia Tech and to recommend to the university what might be done to further develop the department here.

Sitz: Yes, I remember when that committee came in, they even interviewed students. They met with a group of graduate students. I was one of that group, and we had a one-hour chat with them.

Anderson: Yes, right. When I came in, I didn't realize that most of my time interviewing would be spent with Vice President Malpass (Leslie S.) and President Hahn, at the time who were involved in this previous evaluation process. It was their instructions to me at that time that my responsibilities, if I accepted a position here, was to follow the recommendations of this committee with respect to further development of biochemistry. These recommendations dealt with converting the department more into an independent research oriented department as opposed to one more involved in being an analytical tool for other agricultural sciences at the university.

Sitz: What were some of the analytical services in the department? I remember there were a number of them at the time.

Anderson: Well, the building housed a number of groups that were essentially more analytical, the forage-testing laboratories occupied most of the first floor, and we had Nelson Price who was involved in a lot of analytical studies with different metals in different agricultural sources. Roddy Young was there in terms of the pesticide work. The other recommendation was that the biochemistry building should be claimed for the Department of Biochemistry so that the department could expand in numbers of faculty and research laboratories. So there was a need then to work with the different agricultural departments that had faculty occupying the building.

Sitz: I remember Don Cochran who was on the third floor.

Anderson: Don Cochran was from entomology. Joe Fontenot from animal science had a big lab on the first floor, and I think E. T. Kornegay had labs in the building. And, like I said, the forage testing on the first floor. Where our offices are now (the main offices) is where the pesticide-mailing group resided. Their responsibility was to get all of these documents for pesticide analysis out to different areas of the state. So my responsibilities, coming in, as department head were to try to work with these people so they would be set up in their own departments with facilities there, so space would be made available for further expansion of the Department of Biochemistry.

When I arrived here, or I negotiated for the position, we had at the time I don't know how many faculty. There were two people in the department on soft money, and in negotiating for the position here, I said I wanted those two positions to be made (John Hess and Ross Brown were in these two positions) state-supported positions and an additional position be put in at that time. That third position was filled by John Vercellotti, who joined the faculty at that time. He was at the University of Tennessee.

Sitz: So I guess then you also set up the mass-spectroscopy facility?

Anderson: The mass-spec facility was started at that time. The faculty at that time had agreed that they were somewhat deficient in chemically oriented people, and John Vercellotti was an experienced carbohydrate chemist and a true chemist. They agreed he would make a fine addition to the faculty. So he came in at that time.

Shortly thereafter, several faculty had left the department. Dr. Ryland Webb took the chairmanship of Human Nutrition and Foods across the street, and Dr. Colin Campbell accepted a position at Cornell University. So we had two more positions opening up at that time.

I believe Mick Gregory was the first one to come in. I hired Mick. He was at Ohio University at the time. I think the second one was Dick Ebel. Then we had a number of changes in the faculty and some additional faculty positions awarded to the department so that we went through a number of recruiting processes. Bevan came in at that time, and I forgot how many others. We had recruited some faculty that did not get tenure and left the department, so we had some turnover through the years from 1972 to 1980-81.

I stayed on as department head until 1981. I actually asked the dean to step down in 1980, but he was busy with three other department heads who wanted to step down at that time, so he convinced me to stay on another year so he would have more time to work with these positions, and so I did. I stayed on an additional year.

Part 1 | Part 2

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