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
Ruben W. Engel: Organized new Department of Biochemistry and Nutrition in the School of Agriculture Ruben W. Engel

Date of interview: October 3, 2001
Location: Sound Booth, Media Building, Virginia Tech
Interviewee: Ruben W. Engel
Interviewer: George Edwin Bunce
Transcriber: Elizabeth Swiader


Part One

[Tape 1, Side 1]

Bunce: My name is Ed Bunce. I'm a faculty member retired now, emeritus, from the Department of Biochemistry. I was also a student in the Department of Biochemistry, entering the program as a master's candidate back in 1954 and my department head at that time and my mentor was my guest today, Charlie Engel. Dr. Engel we're really glad to have a chance to visit with you and to review your memories of the establishment of the Department of Biochemistry. Would you like to give us a couple comments about your background and your experiences, before you came to Virginia Tech?

Engel: Ed, I'll be glad to respond. I grew up in northern Wisconsin on a dairy farm, and having to do chores early in the morning and realizing that farming involved 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, I vowed, if I could get away from it, I wasn't going to be a farmer.

Bunce: (Laughter) Good thought.

Engel: I was the first in my family to go to high school, and I vowed I would do it to avoid having to go back to the farm. I did well enough to enter the University of Wisconsin in 1931, as a freshman. Those were the days of the deep Depression. Most Americans don't have any idea how deep it was, but fortunately I was in school. Three months after I entered the university, all banks closed which meant we had no money, but the university trusted us. They kept on feeding us, and they kept on educating us, even though we didn't have any money.

Bunce: That's remarkable.

Engel: I didn't have enough money to go through college, but I had an uncle who was willing to provide some funds. Within a week after I entered the university, I sought employment. I worked under the chief of the University of Wisconsin dormitory systems, and living in the dormitory, I earned all of my food requirements through this work. To not go into too many details, I started out in pre-law because I didn't really have an ambition, a set ambition. After the first year, I switched to pre-medicine because I enjoyed the biological aspects of my education. I went through pre-medicine.

After I had been in medical school one year and had started the second year, I was attending a class in physiology when I noted on the bulletin board that there was going to be a lecture by a professor of agricultural chemistry who was going to tell the medics how important copper was for a human being to make hemoglobin, an important blood constituent. So I said to my physiology professor, "Just why is this guy in the Agricultural School doing this kind of work in medicine?"

And the old physiology professor said wisely, "Don't you know that agricultural biochemists make most of the discoveries that we deal with in modern medicine because they work on animals who are also having health problems?"

This impressed me enough to go over to the agricultural chemistry department to see who was doing this kind of work. One of the professors, Paul Phillips, invited me to start working with him if I wanted to, to learn what it was all about. That's when I sent in my resignation to the medical school dean and said I'm going to enter the graduate school. So in 1936 I was granted research assistantship. I finished my research in 1939 and, of the eight Ph.D. graduates, I was the only one to get a job.

The job was at Auburn University (The Alabama Polytechnic Institute) in the animal nutrition laboratory of the Animal Husbandry Department. I spent the next thirteen years at Auburn except for a three-year absence during World War II when I was commissioned as a food and nutrition officer in the U.S. Army Sanitary Corps. I returned to Auburn after the military experience and was quite heavily involved in determining the relationship of nutrition to the development of experimental cancers in animals.

The research I did on choline eventually demonstrated that one could produce a cancer in an experimental animal by leaving something out of the diet, in other words a deficiency. In this case a deficiency of what we know as labile methyl groups, and choline is an important contributor to labile methyl groups.

About the time that I was in the midst of this, I was attending the meetings of the Southern Agricultural Workers in New Orleans, it must have been about the spring of 1951, when the director of the agriculture experiment station [H. N. Young] at Virginia Polytechnic Institute asked me to have lunch with him. That was my introduction to the possibility of becoming a faculty member at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. A year later I came to Blacksburg, Virginia for an interview, and a few months later I decided to accept the position offered to me, which was to organize a new Department of Biochemistry and Nutrition in the College of Agriculture, excuse me in the School of Agriculture at that time, and that is briefly my educational background and the manner in which I arrived in Blacksburg.

Bunce: What was your vision at that time, Charlie, of what you perceived, of what you foresaw that you would like to create at Virginia Tech?

Engel: Well I had the impression that the agricultural chemistry that existed at Virginia Tech was largely an assemblage of analysts, chemical analysts who were serving the rest of the school of agriculture with analytical services, and I felt that there was really nothing in the program that indicated any interest in establishing a research program that was specifically to serve not only the rest of the ag school but also to serve the science of biochemistry and particularly nutritional biochemistry. So I had a vision that was the task that needed to be accomplished beginning with a faculty that was largely oriented towards providing service, which is a noble profession. So that's kind of what I saw was the challenge.

Bunce: Now some of your first recruits, of course, one of your first students was actually one fellow named Ed Bunce who started with you in 1954 to get a master's degree, and I worked on something called X-disease, and I know that was one of your first projects at Virginia Tech, X-disease.

Engel: Yes, and of course again, Ed, this involved providing a service. X-disease we should explain was an unusual condition that disabled particularly cattle, and the solution to the problem, in part, came from one of the veterinarians at Virginia Tech, Dr. Wilson Bell, who discovered on a farm where this disease was prevalent that cattle had access to the farm machinery. The cattle were licking the axles of the farm machinery sitting around in the farmyard. Wilson brought some of that lubricant on these axles back to his laboratory and fed it to calves and that produced the disease. Then he went back to find out what kind of lubricant it was, and he discovered that is was, as I remember, a Sinclair oil lubricant. It then became a question of what was in the lubricant. Well Sinclair Oil at that time was using an additive; this was polychlorinated naphthalene. [problem with tape]

Bunce: Ok, we are on now, and with a little technical difficulty, we will resume. I remember starting with that project with you. I know I was just fascinated by the fact that we started with X-disease unknown, and the detective work of finding out what caused that disease was, I think, the thing that first attracted me to biochemistry.

Engel: They were manufactured by the Lubrizol Corp of Cleveland, Ohio. Wilson Bell and I went to Cleveland there several times to idnetify areas of research that we felt were necessary to pin-point the specific chlorination levels responsible for the toxicity. There were a variety of them, high level chlorine, low level chlorine polychlorinated compounds. At any rate we established the agreement with the company to do research for them, to identify which of the compounds were the most hazardous.

In terms of the problem for Virginians and Virginia farmers, the immediate task was to find the method for detecting polychlorinated napthalenes so that if a farmer used lubricants on his farm, he would know whether or not they were a problem for his cattle. So one of my staff men, Nelson Price, who was a good analyst and had been doing a lot of work on trace elements, dropped everything he was doing and helped me identify whether we could find in the literature, any method for analyzing for chlorinated napthalenes. Nelson found the translated Russian article in Chemical Abstracts that was qualitative for detecting polychlorinated naphthalene. He developed a method for quantifying the analysis. We published the bulletin so that we were serving the Virginia farmers with a method to identify if they should have a problem and what lubricant was safe on their farms.

Bunce: Well some of the first faculty that joined your staff were some people that I think were already here. Kendall King and Ed Moore, and you recruited them as I remember.

Engel: Kendall King was here.

Bunce: He was here, ok.

Engel: And I knew, of course, Kendall King's father who was a good friend of mine. He had been professor of biochemistry at the University of Pittsburgh, but he was, at this point, president and director of the Nutrition Foundation, and so I knew him well. I did not know that his son was at Virginia Tech until I got there.

Ken was a bit disappointed because he was research minded and he was in the biology department and wanted to get into research. The head of the biology department, Dr. I. D. Wilson, a veterinarian and a very good friend it turns out because he helped me in many ways. At any rate, he came and told me that Ken was interested in research and was I interested in helping him? I told him I was glad to help him, and so that's how Ken became involved and actually I think he was in the biology department for three/four years before he decided to become a member of the Biochemistry and Nutrition Department.

Now you're wrong about Ed Moore. At this time, one of the things that Dr. H. N. Young, the Director of the Experiment Station, was interested in was ruminant nutrition. This takes me back in history again because a farmer in Virginia by the name of John Lee Pratt had a herd of cattle with which he had disease problems, and he had called upon Virginia Tech to help him with his disease problems through the Agricultural Extension Service. Mostly the school responded to Pratt's request by sending veterinarians, and the veterinarians were quite convinced that his disease problems were a disease unrelated to nutrition. However, he was convinced that the situation was otherwise, and he wanted consultations from nutritional biochemists.

On one of his visits to Virginia Tech, I learned later from Roddy Young, who was one of the staff men in agricultural chemistry when I arrived and son of the director of the [Agricultural] Experiment Station [Harold Newell Young], that, at a meeting with Mr. Pratt, Dr. Young the director of the experiment station had to tell him we do not now have on the faculty a nutritional biochemist who could be of help to you. To this Mr. Pratt responded, "Why don't you get one?"

Bunce: A logical response.

Engel: And this is in my view one of the reasons I was invited to come to Virginia. At any rate that part of the background meant that I had to start thinking about establishing a relationship with the animal science people on campus, if we were going to support work on cattle and ruminant nutrition. At this time I. D. Wilson, the head of biology, was looking for an addition to his faculty to support this operation. Again he came to me and said, "Why don't you go and interview this young man that I have in mind? His name is Ed Moore, and he's up at Penn State."

So Ken King and I both went to Penn State to interview Ed Moore, and we both liked him, so he became a member of the biology department to support work on ruminant nutrition. Now remember this was about the time that we decided we had to put a fistula into a steer so we could easily get in to see what was going on in the rumen.

Bunce: Do you remember the first task I had as a graduate student under your tutelage Charlie?

Engel: No, I don't remember that.

Bunce: It was to go out and insert my arm through that fistula to the deep, inside of the rumen in order to bring samples out at appropriate times for Ed and Ken King to analyze. I can certainly recall that event, but I didn't know all of the history behind it.

Engel: Well actually it was that phase of our research program that brought Ed Moore into the picture. Ed Moore was not a member of the biochemistry department, however, he worked very closely with Ken King who then was. So we kind of set aside department lines and worked as a research team and this worked very well.



Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

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