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
Roderick Young: Associate Professor Emeritus, Department of Biochemistry Roddy Young

Interviewer: Robert R. Schmidt
Transcriber: Betsy Swiader


Part One

Schmidt: To begin Roddy, please give your full name and what your current appointment is and how long you've lived in Blacksburg and been with the University.

Young: Roderick W. Young, better known as Roddy Young. I've been in Blacksburg since 1931. I came with my parents. My father became head of the Department of Agriculture Economics, when I was in grade school. Right now I'm Associate Professor Emeritus, Department of Biochemistry. When I retired I asked if I may keep working. They said, "Oh sure, go ahead", so I still have a few projects I'm still running. I still work with the technicians we have held on to. I've seen many changes from wooden sidewalks to now of course paved roads and concrete sidewalks and bicycle paths which we didn't think of in those days.

Schmidt: When you and I talked over a month or so ago, you mentioned about the boardwalks and I couldn't believe that you'd overlapped to those times.

Young: And the old library on the hill.

Schmidt: I remember that.

Young: How a typical library, I might say, should look with vaulted ceilings.

Schmidt: It looked like a big church if I remember right.

Young: Yes, I think it was a chapel for VPI.

Schmidt: The books were on two different levels, if I can remember. I am getting up there myself in years.

Young: The walk from the library down to the main street, we called step and half. Professor Goodheim had an injury - he would take a step and a half and he was ready to take the next step down so they made the steps so he could come up and down the steps.

Schmidt: Now you were a student here, weren't you, at Virginia Tech? You got a couple of your degrees here, what departments and what were the names of those degrees?

Young: The first degree I earned was in horticulture, a B.S. I got a Masters in microbiology and biochemistry combination.

Schmidt: I noticed that when I was looking over the records for graduates in biochemistry that you were listed in getting your Masters in biochemistry, but it was a joint degree between microbiology and biochemistry.

Young: Fred Orcutt was here. I. D. Wilson was head of the Department of Biology and Forestry, and Plant Pathology and meanwhile he was in control of all of those departments.

Schmidt: I'm Robert R. Schmidt better known as Bob. I was an undergraduate here at Virginia Tech from 1951 to 55 then a graduate student from 57 until 61 when I got my Ph.D., and then I was invited to stay in the department as a faculty member in biochemistry and worked twenty years and left formally in 1981. So I have a long history too like you Roddy in this area. Well, we're gathered here this morning for the purpose of talking about the early history of the department--at that time Department of Biochemistry and Nutrition.

Your father was Director of the Agricultural Experiment Station at the time the Department was established. Your dad played a major role in establishing the Department. Because of chats with your dad, we thought that you could provide us with some insight about how the Department developed, what the nature of the department was that was here before the Department of Biochemistry and Nutrition developed. Give your dad's full name and we can begin with some of your insight into the original department that existed and why the new department was established--the Department of Biochemistry and Nutrition.

Young: My father's entire name was Harold Newell Young and he came from Cornell to be associate professor of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology. About two weeks after he arrived, the department head resigned and went to Washington. If I remember right, about six months later, he became department head - a rapid movement.

Schmidt: I would say so.

Young: He remained in that category for a number of years and he had classes and a lot of work and extension in developing the department which kept him on the road summers most of the time. He developed the first bookkeeping procedures for the farmers, people in Roanoke - some truck drivers. No records were kept. He developed a system of records for the farmers in the State which apparently they enjoyed. It helped them have some idea of their costs and how they should increase their production.

He also taught several classes in economics; one was world geography. He found out that most students had no idea where the Mississippi River was. He decided they needed a little history about what this country is all about, so that was one of the sections of the economic courses.

At the same time, he was also Head of the Department of Rural Sociology. Funny that area broke off, and Dr. Leland Tate became Head of Sociology.

The area of statistics was under the Department of Agriculture Economics. My father felt that it should be a separate department. Therefore, he helped to establish a real Department of Statistics of which Dr. Harshbarger became the department head. My father then turned his attention to biochemistry.

Schmidt: When did your dad become the Director of the Agriculture Experiment Station?

Young: Oh, probably '43-'45.

Schmidt: So, he served quite a long time

Young: Yes, a career of over 35 years

Young: Then the part of biochemistry at that time, called the Department of Agriculture Chemistry, was founded by Dr. Walter Ellett who had gotten his training in Germany. Apparently in those days it was the common thing after you get your doctorate degree in Germany you buy all sorts of, strange glassware to use, like pots in experiments. When I first started working in the Department in the summers as a student, we had about six shelves, twenty-feet long, of things that Dr. Ellett had brought back from Germany. They had been sitting there since he arrived about 1890 something, it was very covered with dust. So they decided that we would clean it up and learn something about glassware for the biochemistry department and agriculture chemistry. I had the job of cleaning all that glassware and putting it back on the shelf. They were astonished of how clean it was, it took all summer.

Then they had lysimeters, which was the main thing for your work with soils. [In some areas animals weren't doing well, crops weren't producing very well.] Nelson Price was the one who did most of the work in soils. He got soils and ran the lysimeters, with his assistant, Woodrow Linkous. They found at the Station at Steeles Tavern, there was a lack, I think, of sulfur. The crops were poor and animals were not doing well. They had a similar problem in eastern Virginia, and they would go and get soil samples and see what the levels were. They had some various plot trials out in the field in the research station, adding what they thought was missing to see if the crops would improve or the animals improve in their development which was true. Then Professor Lawrence Miller was the superintendant of this station.

Dr. Ellett, department head, was more or less in charge of proximal analysis to study, with the students, what the feed value was. They also had lysimeter work where they ran water through soil columns to see what was missing from the soil. They made recommendations, of course, at the research station, to tell the farming groups what fertilizers they should use to overcome the lack of minerals. Between Petersburg and Suffolk the soil lacked cobalt . They had lime experiments to determine when lime was needed, as they say, to sweeten the soil.

Professor Eheart was working with the vegetable people, and he was going into studying the nutrient value of a food like sweet potatoes, tomatoes, corn and a few others. He began working with the plant group in Beltsville. These plant breeders were actually trying to develop new varieties of edible food crops, which would give better nutrition to people, considering carotene, ascorbic acid, vitamin B1, and other vitamins. We looked to see if they were increased by the plant breeding. Of course, they weren't increasing the yield of the crops.

They had one experiment on spinach. If you have spinach high in oxalic acid and, if you drink a glass of milk with it, your body does not retain the calcium from the milk.

Schmidt: You lost your calcium?

Young: The editor of the Chicago Times Tribune nutrition page, food editor, in fact, got the spinach industry real upset. They were going to continue to sell spinach and we were saying that spinach was bad, takes all the calcium out of milk which was true. It finally cooled down, but it was quite an interesting summer.

Then several people in plant pathology, the dairy industry, animal science, veterinary science, a small group on campus, needed some analytical assistance. Well, actually nobody was well trained for their needs.

Schmidt: So were those needs lacking for nutrition studies?

Young: I actually worked in some trials with the dairy department. They would feed animals different amounts and types of food. They would milk and see the digestive value in the products that they fed the cows and whether the milk production went up or down. That was about all we were really doing. They wanted more vitamin information for the food industry, and we were not well trained, you might say.

We didn't have enough experience or enough time, so my father decided to go to the big five schools. I think there were five: Wisconsin, Minnesota, Penn State, Cornell, might have been Iowa. He asked their directors and deans how they would form a department.

What was needed to make sure we didn't forget something? They had a meeting with those groups and within the meetings they came up a conclusion they needed a certain type of person to head up the biochemistry department. If I remember, Dr. Salmon of Alabama was one of the persons they were contacting who had come out of Wisconsin. He suggested several people. With Dr. Salmon's assistance my father and Dr. Engel got to chat.

Schmidt: That's Dr. R.W. Engel?

Young: Yes. I would hear bits of information. Father really never talked with us at home but now and then somebody would come by the house and he'd be talking and you couldn't help but hear. We were taught never to repeat what was discussed at home. My father was pretty sure that my mother and I were talking so he sent us up to grandmother's in northern New York for the summer. The word was still getting out about all these things they were trying to do to develop in the department. So he discovered we weren't the ones. His secretary was the one at bridge club on the weekends where the leaks were. We were off the hook, and after that people used to come to the house all the time and they knew we wouldn't discuss the information.

Schmidt: Now did you say that I. D. Wilson and Wilson Bell and some others were helpful in getting the department established?

Young: They were asked what was needed.

Schmidt: Wilson Bell was in veterinary science. Ok, I. D. Wilson was head of the Department of Biology.

Young: He was sort of the umbrella for biology, including botany. He controlled the whole department which was very good in some ways. When I.D. Wilson spoke, people listened so he was very good. In microbiology, Dr. Fred Orcutt was one of the microbiologists.

Schmidt: I had him ( I. D. Wilson) for an orientation course, as an undergraduate freshman, and we were all extremely impressed with his tall stature and his white flowing hair.

Young: He was the typical professor.

Schmidt: And when he talked everyone listened to what he said.

Young: He was over wildlife and forestry.

Schmidt: That's right, that discipline was in Price Hall.

Young: He went to Alaska to study animal life in the area and also forestry. He had all those environments under him and nobody wanted to give up anything.

Schmidt: But he was in favor of the biochemistry department and so on.

Young: Yes, he was in favor and he helped push it through. Dr. Newman at the time was very interested.

Schmidt: He was the president?

Young: He was the president, and he apparently got along well with my father. So my father was able to sort of talk him into it (creating the department) and convinced him that the man we should have was Dr. Engel. There was an extension director involved too.

Schmidt: I can't remember his name.

Young: Dr. Bill Daughtery was Extension Director and that's how the department really got started.

Schmidt: So the department was being established to sort of take up the areas that couldn't be handled by the original Agricultural Chemistry Department, the animal nutrition, the human nutrition. Laura Harper took over Home Economics?

Young: Right--and Dr. Mildred Tate was also with Home Economics, and then Ms. Harper was directly working with human nutrition. She developed data showing the nutrient value differences between pork, pigs then corn or then peanuts, the soft fat versus hard fat, the soft fat of the peanuts.

The new building beside Engel Hall, Harper Hall was dedicated to Laura Harper. Harold Young coached Laura Harper to go back and get her Ph.D. and then come back to Tech. He thought her qualifications were good for teaching. So under his advice, she went back for her doctorate degree in nutrition. She was always very very wonderful to work with and very, very productive. So it got started that way.

Schmidt: So once the decision was made to have the Department of Biochemistry and Nutrition how did they go about selecting faculty?

Young: Well then, if I can recall, they couldn't hire a whole new group of faculty with their funds so they took out one person from each department and made several joint appointments between biochemistry and the department they had been in: Chick Wisman with poultry, Joe Fontenot was with animal science. Lets see who, somebody with dairy science.

Schmidt: I'm trying to remember who the dairy person was.

Young: Oh, somebody from plant pathology, I can't think back.



Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

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