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: That's interesting. Certainly there are many achievements that the faculty made in the Department of Biochemistry the years of your stay here. One of the ones that certainly stands out and you had I'm sure a big role in and certainly that impacted your subsequent work after you stepped down from being department head was the Mother Craft Center work that Ken King did. Would you care to reminisce a little bit about the evolution of that project?
Engel: The evolution is largely not mine, it's Ken King's, who as we know is now gone, and I really don't know what prompted Ken who was a very successful cellulase research worker to go into the field. Obviously he had an interest because he was invited to do a survey, to serve as a biochemist on a survey team that was supported by the Research Corporation of New York City. This must have been in the late 50's and somehow this sparked an interest and Ken became very strongly interested in what to do about the malnutrition of so many children around the world. So he developed the idea that the problem basically is not a medical problem, it's a nutrition problem. It's a nourishment problem and that too often, if these problems are done by medical people, the people who are being served think it is a medical problem and not a food problem. Ken developed the idea of teaching mothers how to better feed their infants and children away from the medical profession.
Let us set up separate centers where we will teach mothers improved nutrition, improved housekeeping, improved home economics, etc., improved family planning for example and so this idea was strong in Ken's mind. He convinced the United Nations nutrition representative in Haiti, the Republic of Haiti, the first republic in the western hemisphere, that we should experiment with teaching mothers in this fashion, and that is kind of the background of the Mother Craft Center idea. Now I became interested and I gave Ken free rein to do whatever he could on this problem. I'm not so sure our director was that much interested, remember Dr. Harry Young, but he tolerated us.
At any rate about this time I had been appointed as a member of the Food and Nutrition Board and shortly after I was invited to be a member I discovered why. They were looking for someone to head the committee to do the usual recommended dietary allowances which is not an easy job but that's what I got shortly after I became a member and we had, at that time, a variety of subcommittees and one of them was the world nutrition problem, so we would meet and discuss and come up with recommendations.
It occurred to me that none of us had actually gone out there to see what it was like and so about this time I made the decision that I should more heavily involve myself. Even though it took almost a half a decade - about four or five years, the opportunity came when Wilson Bell asked me to become Associate Dean for Research. This was in 1966, fourteen years after I had started the department. One year short of what I'd thought I needed to build the department because I had set my mind on fifteen years as a minimum for accomplishing the mission I was brought to Tech to do. At any rate when he asked me to be associate dean and Ken King became the head of the department as you remember. I told him I would do this under one condition that as associate dean I would be permitted to go to Washington and make an application to the U.S. International Foreign Aid program to start a program of Mother Craft Centers in another country. Dean Bell said go ahead. This was in 1966.
In the midst of this President Johnson, Lyndon Johnson, called upon the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Science to develop a treatise on the world food problem and how it affected the nutrition of the world's people. I became a member of that commission under the chairmanship of Grace Goldsmith, who was then chairman of the Food and Nutrition Board. In the midst of our deliberations on the world food problem it became more and more clear to U.S.A.I.D., our foreign aid program, that something really should be done about malnutrition as a U.S. aid policy to improve nutrition around the world.
So that's kind of the background on how I got into the Philippines and headed a U.S., Virginia Tech office on the other side of the world with the privilege of bringing in consultants to aid with the broad purpose of our program which was-to assist the Philippine government in developing a strategy that would lead to improved nutrition of children. That was broadly our objective and that's what I headed after I left the department.
Bunce: And I believe that project was selected as the most successful project that A.I.D. had.
Engel: That was cited twice as one of the most successful projects in the east Asia area you know of about ten countries.
Bunce: Are there other items that you'd like to bring up to talk about Charlie? I think we've pretty much covered your coming to Virginia Tech, the visions that you had in mind, the accomplishments along the way, have I left one out?
Engel: I think one thing that I have not covered that I think is pretty important, this is the absolute loyalty of the existing faculty that I inherited when I came here and I'll mention them all. Juel Albert was a technician, Mary Cox was our secretary very dedicated to the department, Jim Dehart was the oldest and he was an acting head of the old agricultural chemistry department. Woodrow Linkous and Nelson Price, that's the faculty and staff that were in place. They were all loyal to me, they never questioned what I asked them to do, they always did it efficiently and thoroughly and I always admired them for that.
Now I think I could never say it, but James Dehart you know was a musician. He loved music and one of my first experiences in Blacksburg was to go to his house and hear him do his music and he loved it, but his father didn't want him to be a musician his father wanted him to be a doctor. Well Jim didn't want to be a doctor. So they compromised and Jim became a chemist and Jim got his undergraduate work at Tech and then got his masters at Columbia University. He was the acting head when I arrived; he did everything I asked him to do. He did it freely, consulted me often on whether he was doing it right, he eventually left, he is the only man that left the department but I think he left, not because of me but what had intruded upon his life. He wanted to do research that was being done at the USDA lab in Beltsville and that's why I think he left. Incidentally his wife was also a biochemist and I still correspond with her and we are close friends.
Bunce: Well Charlie I certainly want to thank you for three things that you have done for me. You accepted me as a wet behind the ears, considerably wet behind the ears, graduate student in 1954 with that project on my masters and you helped me find an advisor at Wisconsin when I went there in 58' and it turned out to be Paul Phillips who was your old professor and mentor there, and then you very kindly allowed me to join your faculty in 1965 for what I can't imagine could have been a happier life of working under your guidance first of all and then with the department for thirty years.
Engel: Let me comment on that. Ed I was surprised to see a forestry student show up in my office and wanting to be a graduate student. So I've had a strong interest Ed, and we've had a wonderful career together. I should tell you also that the most harrowing experience I guess that we both suffered was in Brazil. When you had to be evacuated because of, what was it?
Bunce: Hepatitis .
Engel: Hepatitis, that's right and we had to do it through military transport through the South Carolina air force base, Charleston as I remember.
Bunce: Well I messed up and I thought you were going to remember the time, I might mention for our history here, that you and I were both serving. You were one of the co-heads of the team, it was sent out by a group called the ICNND to survey the nutrition status of northeast Brazil and I was invited to be the laboratory officer on that team. So we were there together in Recife Brazil and I thought you were going to mention, not my hepatitis but the night we came home in the taxi.
Engel: I'll never forget that
Bunce: Do you want to tell about that?
Engel: Martha -----Trulson was on the faculty at Harvard. She was a member of this team and she was in a taxi with Bob.
Bunce: Bob Shank?
Engel: Bob Shank and I and Martha, Martha was in the middle and I was on the left and Bob was on the right in the back seat of this taxi. This taxi was having an argument with another taxi, scooting in and out of traffic and I observed all of this and I figured this was not going to end in anything very nice. Brazil is a warm country so the windows were opened of course, we had no air conditioning. At any rate, when we got that taxi back to the hotel the other taxi that was arguing with us on the highway pulled up and pointed a gun at our driver. When Martha Trulson saw this, she leaped, literally leaped over Bob Shank, held onto the arms of the hotel butler (laughter) or whatever, doorman, remember that?
Bunce: I do, we were standing there watching it. What I wondered was who paid the taxi driver?
Engel: I've forgotten.
Bunce: I think as I remember it the fellow did not shoot and pulled off and I believe someone went back out there and gave the money to the taxi driver.
Engel: Those are fond memories Ed. But you were slated to join the faculty after that.
Bunce: Yes in 65'
Engel: Because we lost a faculty member by the name of Russell Miller who had a heart problem and they had tried artificial valves, but they finally were not functioning and he died in 1963 and it was to fill that position that brought Ed Bunce back to Virginia Tech.
Bunce: Those little things that occur in life, I'm certainly glad a position was there, I'm sorry of Russ's demise, early demise but maybe you could have found a position for me to work with Russ, would like to think that would have been possible.
Engel: Well you did valuable work on the project in the Philippines.
Bunce: Well anything else you would like to state in closure? I think this has been a wonderful interview with you Charlie. Some things have come up that I had never heard before and a lot of it that of course I was familiar with but it's a great recounting of your experiences leading up to Virginia Tech and the role that you played here. Any sort of final thoughts on this interview?
Engel: If I think back I should tell you that I have often wondered and so did my wife, my deceased wife, how our lives would have been different if we had stayed at Auburn instead of coming to Virginia. It wasn't easy for us to leave Auburn. We had friends there, it was a lovely, friendly village, small town, just like Blacksburg and with many friends. One of the conditions that doesn't really relate to Virginia but relates to why I got here. If I had been made dean of the graduate school at Auburn I wouldn't have come, but that was a condition that the president of Auburn, at that time, said he couldn't meet. Well the graduate dean at that time was an old Virginian and when I decided to go to Virginia he told me some profound advice. He said, when you get into cocktail parties in Virginia and you have these casual acquaintances and people start talking to you and you're conversing with them don't ever ask them if they are from Virginia. If they are not, you're embarrassed and if they are, they'll soon let you know.
Bunce: Well that's a good place to stop Charlie, I'll tell you, I'm just so grateful that you did come to Virginia Tech because it's been a marvelous contribution that you've made to not only the building and the department but to the lives of everybody that's been associated with you. It's been a great privilege for me to be able to sit and help with the recounting of the history.
Engel: I enjoyed it too, Ed.
Bunce: Thank you Charlie.
[end of interview]
With reference to audio tape as necessary:
Reviewed by Ed Bunce,
Edited by John Hess, and Sheila Early.
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