Ruben W. Engel: Organized new Department of Biochemistry and Nutrition in the School of Agriculture
Date of interview: October 3, 2001
Location: Sound Booth, Media Building, Virginia Tech
Interviewee: Ruben W. Engel
Interviewer: George Edwin Bunce
Transcriber: Elizabeth Swiader
Bunce: I can remember that as you built the faculty, there were some faculty who came in with full-time appointments to biochemistry, and there were quite a number who came in with half-time or some partial-time appointments to biochemistry and nutrition and one of the departments such as animal, dairy, poultry, and entomology. I know your first couple of recruits were Clem Ackerman and Dan Lane.
Engel: Yes, before we go to them, let me remind you that Chick Wisman was a joint appointee with poultry science, and a little later, Joe Fontenot was a joint appointment between biochemistry and nutrition and the animal science department, which was then animal husbandry. So we had already established this business of working, inter-departmental as well as co-departmental.
Bunce: And Don Cochran at one point.
Engel: Don Cochran came a little later. He was in entomology, but we provided him with laboratory space after we had moved in to our new building. Before then we didn't have any space.
Bunce: Right, we'll get to that new building pretty soon. I'm sure that was obviously a pivotal step forward. Would you like to reminisce anything about say Clem Ackerman and Dan Lane?
Engel: Well Clem Ackerman I knew at Auburn. He was a student, a graduate student under a fellow faculty member at Auburn, but I knew him very well, of course, because he was in my department. I liked Clem, and so when the opportunity arose for expanding the faculty, I brought Clem up for an interview, and I will never forget this. At that time Walter Newman was president of Virginia Polytech, and after Clem Ackerman had been through the president's office for his interview-- in those days President Newman interviewed everybody.
Bunce: Every new faculty?
Engel: Everyone that came on the faculty. He called me after the interview and said, "Charlie, why didn't Ackerman have a coat on when he came to my office? He was in a shirt and necktie, but he didn't have a coat."
And I told the president the answer was very simple. He doesn't own one. Clem was a very sincere person and worked hard but didn't have a penny. He was poor. At any rate, the president laughed, and he approved him.
Bunce: That's good.
Engel: Dan Lane came to VA Tech in a little different manner. The position he filled was established to strengthen our work in cellular metaboism. Dan had gotten his B.S. degree at Iowa State and doctorate at the University of Illinois under Dr. Connor Johnson, whom I knew as a fellow graduate student at Wisconsin. He and Clem Ackerman joined us in the mid 1950's. Dan was very productive worker and earned an invitation to do research at the Max Planck Institute in Munich, Germany. His research led him into as association with Dr. Ochoa at New York University. He joined the faculty there after he had been with us for 6 years. Dan loved to fish for trout with Nelson Price, who was active in Isaac Walton and knew all the local streams well.
Dan was a very productive biochemist, earned an invitation to the Max Planck Institute in Munich, Germany, and his research led him into an association with a Professor Ochoa at New York University. So Dan decided to move on after he had been with us about six years, but he was very productive. He loved to fish for trout with Nelson Price who was a member of the Isaac Walton League and knew everything about trout in Virginia.
Bunce: Well I know Dan Lane always spoke most warmly about his days at Virginia Tech and his associations with you here. He came back at the dedication of the building you might remember and made a nice talk.
Engel: Well he paid me a high compliment--I should tell you. In 1996 when he retired as chairman of the biochemistry Department at Johns Hopkins, he invited me to the ceremonial dinner. In his after dinner remarks, he commented that I had influenced his career more than any of his professional acquaintances, which of coures, made me feel good.
Bunce: That is indeed a high compliment that's something that one can really cherish. One of the things that had to happen was to get a new building, and you were instrumental in seeing that came about.
Engel: Well that was an interesting experience also. As part of the background, I have to make two observations. One, I had been invited by the director of the experiment station at Michigan State University to head what was going to be a new Department of Biochemistry and Nutrition at that university. It was an appealing offer and would have raised my salary a fair amount, but after interviews there with myself and with my wife, I came back to Virginia, and I told my director that my job here wasn't finished. I hadn't completed the job of building the faculty, and I was pressed for a place to work. So in 1957, I got the go ahead to start planning for a separate building to house biochemistry and nutrition.
At that time I don't believe a single U.S. Public Health Service grant had ever been made to the university, but I decided to make an application to the National Institute of Health for what was then called a construction grant, in other words the National Institute of Health was interested in finding universities that were doing health related research and support them with building funds. We were successful in getting a little over a half million-dollar grant from the National Institute of Health, and with this in hand the director went before the Virginia General Assembly to match, because the federal money from the public health service would not be available unless it was matched by state contributions. I think it was in the 1958 General Assembly that money was authorized to match the public health service grant so that we could start building the building. And that's the background of how we got a new building, which we dedicated in 1961 with a symposium you will remember.
Bunce: I do remember that.
Engel: One of the contributors to this symposium, making it possible to have it, was a grant from the Nutrition Foundation. The director was Glen King, Ken's father, but that's the background of how we got the building. I should tell you at that point when the building was under construction or about to start I was on a foreign assignment through the U.S. National Institutes of Health in the Philippines, a three-month assignment to be a nutrition consultant. While I was gone Wilson Bell was taking care of the grant for the building and had to make a trip to Washington to discuss some of the problems about how to release the funds, and on his way home he was delayed. They had all booked a flight on Piedmont Airlines from Washington back to Roanoke, so he had to go and find a hotel and spend the night. That was the only fatal crash--that flight he was supposed to be on--that Piedmont Airline ever had. This is an interesting part of the historical background. I made an observation of that at the dedication, the naming of the building some 30 years later because I'll never forget that.
Bunce: That's remarkable--such a chance event that spared his life. We had talked earlier about Mr. John Lee Pratt. I think he had another role in helping the department, and you interacted with him on the so-called anonymous donor fund, which is not anonymous anymore.
Engel: Well see my background memory of this is a bit sketchy. It reminds me of Mark Twain, if I may digress a minute. Mark Twain was quite old when he decided to write his autobiography, and I think it's in the introduction, he makes this observation--you know, the older you get, the more you do some thinking. You think about things that happened, and then you also think about things that never happened, and sooner or later it becomes blurred as to which is which. So maybe you should remember this when I talked about my recollection of what happened about 45 years ago.
At any rate Wilson Bell decided it was time I met John Lee Pratt, so he arranged an interview for me at John Lee Pratt's home, on the banks of the Rappahannock River in Fredericksburg, Virginia. This was in the fall of 1957, and we Virginians should all remember that that was the 350th anniversary of Jamestown, and so they had a special summer or year commemorating the 350th anniversary. So I put my family on a train to Williamsburg, and I headed out for Fredericksburg for my interview with Mr. Pratt. I met my family in Richmond, left the state car there that I was driving, and went on to Williamsburg by train, and we had a very nice vacation of three days at Williamsburg and then headed home. When I got home, Stewart Cassell, who was a finance officer for Virginia Tech, called me and said, "There's a check here for a hundred thousand dollars."
Bunce: That's a lot of money for those days.
Engel: Cassell said, "I guess you know who it's from."
And I said, "Well I'm surprised, but I am glad I got a response." That's the story of my first visit with John Lee Pratt. We had about a two-hour conversation. I didn't ask him for money, but I told him what my plans were for developing a research-oriented program at Virginia Tech in nutritional biochemistry.
Bunce: Didn't you help him resolve that problem that he was having with his cattle? My recollection is it might have been copper deficiency.
Engel: You know he never really asked me for advice on his problem. I think at that time his problem had largely been solved and I think that Wilson Bell was right that it was a disease problem involving reproduction and that it kind of ran its course. However, he had always been interested in trace elements, copper and zinc, and so we continued research, you remember, with Nelson Price, who did a lot of forage analyses. Not only for the benefit of Mr. Pratt but for the farmers generally including I should say Paul Mellon who was a big horse farmer up in Middleburg. We started doing forage analysis for him because he had reproductive problems in his horses. At any rate, my experience with Mr. Pratt was very interesting because he asked me to call his secretary and set up an appointment once a year; he wanted to see me once a year to see how things were moving along. So between 1957 and 1967 I saw Mr. Pratt every year for a two hour interview often with a before-lunch, dry martini (laughter). But at any rate he was always interested in what we were doing.
He became intensely interested I remember in my background on how I'd gotten into biochemistry because I told him the story about how important copper was to hemoglobin production and then he recalled that I was from Wisconsin and so was Elmer McCollum who was a professor of biochemistry at Johns Hopkins University who had also consulted on nutrition. Incidentally that's the only place where he let his name be used when he made the university contribution. He established the McCollum-Pratt Institute at Johns Hopkins University, which was largely run by Professor McCollum. Well he knew that Professor McCollum thought a great deal of me and this surprised me because I was not at all in a research area when I was doing research at Auburn that was of interest to Professor McCollum. He nevertheless followed my career and came to me at Federation (FASEB) meetings several times to compliment me on the research I was doing etc. At any rate, I think my connection with McCollum was much in my favor in the mind of Mr. Pratt and that's why he kept in touch with me on an annual basis.
Now when we were building the building I should say I kept him informed and he suspected I was going to ask him for help (laughter), but I never did. However, when I told him the building was finished and we were going to dedicate it, he sent two hundred shares of General Motors stock to the treasurer of Virginia Tech to support the equipment needed in the new building and Ed that's how we got one of our amino acid analyzers. At that time General Motors shares were worth about, I've forgotten, but at any rate the total was about 45,000 dollars. That's the only contribution he made to support, in connection with having a new building. He used to say you could do research in a shed and he knew that Bob Williams, the famous biochemist who synthesized thiamine, vitamin B-1, had worked in his garage while he was doing it. Remember that?
Bunce: I do indeed but I think I would rather work in a laboratory than a garage.
Engel: At any rate in about 1965 I told Mr. Pratt that we had used his $100,000 to support graduate students and faculty, in the main, because he wasn't interested in building. He wanted to help faculty and students so I told him that the fund was about to run out. I remember in 1965 I was president of the American Institute of Nutrition and I was about to go to the annual banquet when a telephone message arrived from my secretary that Mr. Pratt had sent a check for $150,000 so that the program of helping faculty and grad students would go on for another ten years.
Bunce: Oh that's marvelous, that's good.
Engel: That was in 1965. There is a sequel to this. I was again in the Philippines. At this point I had moved to the Philippines when Mr. Pratt died and he had left the university, as I recall, $6,500,000 to support animal nutrition and I was called upon for a deposition to the Virginia Tech lawyer on the condition of the state-of-mind of Mr. Pratt the last time I saw him. Some members of his family were questioning his will and whether or not he was sane and sane-minded when he wrote his will. Of course I had to state that the last time I saw him he was, shall we say, a little bit absent minded because I think we had been in conversation about five minutes before he really knew who I was, but after that, it was perfectly normal. It turned out also that he had written his will before that, but I had to do a deposition on the telephone from the Philippines to an office at Virginia Tech.
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