Everett L. (Chick) Wisman: First Faculty Member in the new Department of Biochemistry and Nutrition
Date of interview: January 22, 2002
Location: Sound Booth, Media Building, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Virginia
Interviewee: Everett L. Wisman
Interviewer: Lewis Barnett
Transcriber: Elizabeth Swiader
[Tape 1, Side 1]
Barnett: This is Lewis Barnett interviewing Everett L. "Chick" Wisman for the 50th anniversary of the Department of Biochemistry. Chick was the first faculty member hired by Charlie Engel and so has a lot of history of the department as it developed. So Chick, why don't you start by telling us something about yourself and when you first came to Virginia Tech.
Wisman: Did anybody ever tell you how Charlie got his name?
Barnett: No, I never heard.
Wisman: I'm surprised he didn't tell you himself. When he was born his parents couldn't come up with a name, so the doctor got impatient and just wrote Charlie down on his birth certificate, and that's how he is known. As I worked with him through the years, I could never call him Charlie for some reason. He was always Dr. Engel to me I guess out of just respect because he was a great department head. Now what was your question?
Barnett: When did you first come to Virginia Tech? You came as an undergraduate. When was that?
Wisman: Oh boy, we are going back now. I was a student here starting in 1940 for three years, went to war for three years and came back to finish in '46. Then I sort of set myself three goals. One, I wanted to get a little practical experience in poultry. Two, I wanted to go to graduate school. Three, I wanted to come back to Tech, and over the years I was able to accomplish all three of what I set out to do. So I went to Cornell for a master's, Penn State for my Ph.D. I kept in touch with Dr. Young (Harold N.) who was director of the experiment station, and learned that they were beginning to change a lot of things at what was then called VPI and called the School of Agriculture rather than "college." Plans were to start a new Department of Biochemistry to replace what was then I would call a section of agricultural chemistry. They established the Department of Biochemistry and Nutrition. There was a lot of discussion, and finally Dr. Young, being the ramrod, got it through in 1952 with Dr. Engel as the first head.
Barnett: So when did you come here then as a faculty member? When did Charlie hire you?
Wisman: Well I think Dr. Young turned my correspondence over to Dr. Engel in late '52. Then December '52 he asked if I wanted to be interviewed for the position. I said, "Yes," and he said, "Where should we meet?" And I said. "Well how about Washington, D.C. So we met in the old Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C., and I went on back to Norfolk where I was staying for a few months because I wasn't interviewing any place else. I didn't want to. Maryland offered me a job, but I didn't like it there-too too much city. So I put all my eggs in one basket and waited, and sure enough I got the offer, and I came back to Tech and began on the staff in January of '53. Before that--I wanted to just say a little bit before '52 we had what we called, a section of agricultural chemistry.
Barnett: Now who was in that?
Wisman: There was one staff member, Professor Jim Eheart, and we had three technicians: Juel Albert, Woodrow Linkous, and Nelson Price and several what I call assistant technicians. Eheart taught a course in agricultural chemistry which I actually took in 1943. Little did I know then that I would replace him as teaching a similar course. We were housed in Smyth Hall on two floors. Most of my research was in poultry nutrition, and I remember having little chick batteries down in the basement of Smyth Hall, and I was a 60/40 appointment with Poultry Husbandry. Today it is Animal and Poultry Sciences. I don't know how this developed, but it was, I think, a very good move that Dr. Engel was able to convince, along with Dr. Young, that the department should include nutrition. Dr. Engel had a real interest in that type of work, and after all to me, basic nutrition is biochemistry. So we started out as a Department of Biochemistry and Nutrition.
Barnett: Now what courses did you teach other than agricultural chemistry that you took over from Jim Eheart? Did you teach any poultry courses?
Wisman: No, they were pretty well set. That was the course I taught, and, as I said, I did my research in poultry nutrition, and I taught that course until 1970, '72 I guess.
Barnett: Now did you notice a big change from the time that you finished your undergraduate degree in '46 and when you came back in '52 in the college and the university?
Wisman: Not a whole lot really. We were still VPI, still the VPI Gobblers, and nobody knew anything about Virginia Tech Hokies, and we were still the college nomenclature, and there was the School of Agriculture with the various departments: Poultry Husbandry, Dairy Husbandry, and Animal Husbandry. Of course they are all sciences now. I was going to say a while ago Dr. Engel inherited these people that were here plus Roddy Young. I wanted to mention him too.
Barnett: Roddy was in the department when you came here in '53?
Wisman: When I came back, he was, I think he was a class behind me in '45, and he was here when I came back. That is as I remember. Now listen after 50 years [laughter] I could be wrong a year or two.
Barnett: Now, did you grow up on a farm?
Wisman: Oh yes.
Barnett: Is that where you got your interest in poultry science?
Wisman: Grew up on a farm
Barnett: Where was this land located?
Wisman: Near Woodstock, Virginia, and I had a little poultry flock, and I did a lot of the exhibition work.
Barnett: 4-H type of stuff?
Wisman: 4-H and FFA (Future Farmers of America) and was fortunate to win the state judging contest in both 4-H and FFA and took out-of-state trips. So to me that was my world.
Barnett: And so you didn't consider any place else other than Virginia Tech for college?
Wisman: I knew it's where I wanted to go, and I was greatly influenced by my agriculture teacher and the county extension agent. They were both Tech. I knew the place very well by then being here because I had come over here several times during those years. I knew the campus before I enrolled.
Barnett: So how many students were here in 1940 when you first came as a freshman?
Wisman: Well totally at university or college there were about 2500. Most all of them were cadets. Unless you had a physical disability, you had to take military.
Barnett: And there were also a few women in Hillcrest?
Wisman: Yes, we had almost 200 that lived in Hillcrest, and they all took home economics except several who took engineering, by the way.
Barnett: Now when you came, were there a lot of people in Poultry Science? Was it a big undergraduate program?
Wisman: No, we had about fifteen or twenty, pretty good.
Barnett: Who were the faculty members in poultry that you had classes with?
Wisman: Poultry faculty--well of course Harry Moore was the head. He was mostly an extension person. Clay Holmes taught most of the classes. There were several, I can't recall the names, that taught management. Others came as adjunct faculty and taught; I can't remember their names.
Barnett: Now, how many students would you have typically in your agricultural chemistry course that you taught when you first came here in '53?
Wisman: Well I think things did really change a little bit about that time. There was a lot more interest in, well, may I say, basics rather than practical or husbandry courses.
Wisman: Applied, yes. As I remember,, all of Animal Science, Dairy Science, Poultry Science, Agronomy, Horticulture and the Home Ec. were required to take my course.
Barnett: Was it a one-quarter course or a one-year course?
Wisman: It was a three-quarter course.
Barnett: Three-quarter course, that's all year. So about how many students would you have in the class?
Wisman: Oh I would have maybe two sections of about 100-110 each.
Barnett: So you had big classes for that time.
Wisman: We called it Elementary Biochemistry so they could get around not taking organic chemistry. I didn't think it was that bad, but nobody wanted to take organic chemistry. They keep telling me there was a guy that taught organic chemistry, now I won't say his name, that flunked half of the agricultural students all the time. So the departments wanted to get away from that. So that's when I added another quarter to my course.
Barnett: You taught an organic chemistry course?
Wisman: The first quarter was organic that I wanted them to have to support the basic nutrition course.
Barnett: Were there any other prerequisites for the course? Do you have to have any biology?
Barnett: No prerequisites at all, anybody could come in.
Wisman: But most of them had had the elementary courses. Mine was a sophomore course.
Barnett: Sophomore course? Ok. So they had really had general chemistry and general biology probably.
Wisman: Oh yes, they had to have those.
Barnett: When you first came here were there any other courses taught in the Department of Biochemistry? Other than your agricultural chemistry? Did Charlie Engel teach an agricultural nutrition course or anything like that when you first came?
Wisman: I'm trying to remember that too, when it started, but he taught a graduate course. I remember he had to go on a trip, and he asked if I would take one day's lecture for him.
Barnett: Was this a nutrition course?
Wisman: No, in fact he was on vitamins then at that particular time of the quarter, and I remember I spent a whole hour with the grad students teaching them something about vitamin A. [laughter] They probably knew more about it than I did because they were pretty good students.
Barnett: Now, when I first came here, and, I am sure, when you did, there were Saturday classes. I guess these were abandoned in about '64, '65.
Wisman: I didn't realize that policy remained in the mid sixties. I know when I was a student we had Saturday classes. I remember going back to the barracks, and we'd pass the football players going out to play.
Barnett: They had Saturday classes too?
Wisman: Classes until 12 noon and then went out and played football at one o'clock. You don't see that today.
Barnett: No, they still had Saturday classes when I came in '63. I think it was about '64, '65 when they abandoned the Saturday classes and went to the 75-minute schedule on Tuesday/Thursday. Did you have your classes on Saturday or were yours Monday/Wednesday/Friday?
Wisman: I did not like Tuesday and Thursday classes. We worked it out. I liked the regular 50-minute classes. The 75-minute class was too much. It is hard to keep the students' interest that long.
Barnett: Now you were, I guess, the first person in nutrition. Did Joe Fontenot come shortly after you for animal nutrition?
Wisman: Yes, he came. The first one I remember after me was Clem Ackerman.
Barnett: Oh, Clem Ackerman? OK.
Wisman: But he was strictly biochemistry and then Fontenot.
Barnett: What about Dan Lane?
Wisman: He came pretty soon thereafter. Fontenot was with animal science of course.
Barnett: But he was a joint appointment?
Wisman: He had a joint appointment just like mine except he was 60 animal and 40 nutrition where I was 60 percent.
Wisman: Biochemistry and 40 percent poultry. I'm trying to think of the fellow in dairy science. I can't think of his name now. But he had nutrition interest, and I remember, you remember too, at the staff meetings we had Fontenot.
Barnett: Yes, we had you.
Wisman: Trying to think of the fellow from dairy, and we had Ed Moore.
Barnett: You had Don Cochran from entomology.
Wisman: Don Cochran, entomology. It seemed like there was another person. I can't recall his name.
Barnett: Now, this was also just before I got here. There was a Russ Miller who had died. Was Russ a biochemist?
Wisman: Yes, did you know him?
Barnett: No, he died just before I arrived. Ryland and I came in '63, and Russ had just died I think that spring, and I came in the summer.
Wisman: Well, he wasn't here all that long. He had a rheumatic heart problem. I guess he came, I can't remember who came first, Lane or Miller. Can't remember really, but they came before you, right before you.
Barnett: Yes, now other persons that were here when I came were Ken King and Bob Schmidt. I guess both of them had been undergraduates here at Tech.
Wisman: Yes, both of them. In fact, Bob Schmidt took my course.
Barnett: Oh your biochemistry course?
Wisman: [laughter] And I remember always after class he had several questions to ask me, person to person and all. He said later every time he sees me--he said I need to thank you again because you got my interest in biochemistry. So maybe I had a little effect on somebody. I think he went to the University of Maryland for his...
Barnett: M.S. He got his Ph.D. here under Kendall King.
Barnett: You know he's moved back to town.
Wisman: Yes, but I haven't seen him yet.
Barnett: He's bought a house and been here almost a year maybe a year and a half, maybe two years now.
Wisman: Well that department really flourished. Of course, it was the "new boy" on the block. I say Dr. Engel was a good head, and he built that thing up very quickly and in the right way I think.
Barnett: Now when did Ken King come here? Because I know he was an undergraduate and went to Wisconsin for his Ph.D., and he was here when I came in '63, and I think he was very well established.
Wisman: Well he graduated here.
Barnett: Like in the late thirties.
Barnett: Late forties, I think.
Wisman: About five years after I did, and I came in 1953. When he came, they all came one right after the other. Was he here before you?
Barnett: Oh yes, Ken King had been here and had turned out several graduate students. He was on the second floor there right above where you and Nelson were, and he had quite an active research program going when I got here.
Wisman: And I remember Dan Lane a little more because, until we got really settled, I think we were in the same office, so I remember him being there. But anyway I was there 'til 1968. Then I went to 100 percent to Poultry.
Barnett: One hundred percent to Poultry Science?
Wisman: Then Bruce Anderson came in 1970, and I continued to teach that course until 1972. I'd been waiting for the other shoe to fall. I said, "This doesn't look quite right. I'm not even in Biochemistry, yet I'm teaching a course in it. I remember we talked, and at the same time, we started a new animal nutrition series. So we agreed that Clem Ackerman would take over my course and change the nature of it more to biochemistry. Then we developed a two-semester series of animal nutrition, one and two. I taught about the same things in animal science that I taught in biochemistry.
Barnett: Now you said you originally were in Smyth Hall. Was all the department located down there?
Wisman: When I was here as a student, they built Smyth Hall.
Wisman: I'm trying to think exactly when that happened. I know when I came back, the agricultural chemistry was in Smyth Hall.
Barnett: Were there some in Price?
Barnett: No, they were all in Smyth.
Wisman: All in Smyth.
Barnett: Forage testing was down there also?
Wisman: Well that and also the soil analysis people.
Barnett: The soil people were still there in the Agronomy Department.
Wisman: They're still down there, yes. Well that's what the agricultural section did really, just as a service. That type of testing with the other agricultural people. But then Jim Eheart taught the one course in agricultural chemistry which was a little bit more than basic, organic course.
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