Roderick Young: Associate Professor Emeritus, Department of Biochemistry
Interviewer: Robert R. Schmidt
Transcriber: Betsy Swiader
Schmidt: When I arrived here to work on my Ph.D., it seemed to me that Dr. King was a member of the department joint between biology.
Young: He was biology, microbiology.
Schmidt: Yes, microbiology, and also Ed Moore was totally microbiology, I don't know?
Young: He was.
Schmidt: So they had this group of joint appointees, and do you know what their mission was? Usually, when a department is established they have a mission statement.
Young: If I remember, Dr. Engel said we needed somebody in these different areas. Of course, without funds so we joined departments. Apparently there were three that were suggested to work for the group of biochemistry. I think we had more or less a pick of people, and with his experience in the past Dr. Engel was able to pick people out that fit the bill.
Schmidt: So were any of the agricultural chemistry people carried over into the department?
Young: Professor Hill had just retired, Professor Eheart came in as a proximal analysis person.
Schmidt: I remember him being there when I was a student. Of course, Nelson Price came over.
Young: Nelson Price came, he was the mineral person and Professor Eheart was nutrition and plant development and he taught the course, proximal analysis which they finally turned over to me eventually. Dr. Massey in Department of Horticulture worked with the Department of Biochemistry and Nutrition. He became Associate Director of the Experiment Station.
Schmidt: Was that P. H. Massey?
Young: Howard Massey.
Schmidt: He was my undergraduate advisor when I went through. I know he was real interested in carotene content of sweet potatoes. He was working along with the Agricultural Chemistry Department here.
Young: And then there was somebody in agronomy.
Schmidt: Dr. Roy Blazer?
Young: No, Mike Kipps, Blazer was the person who worked with grasses. -------
Schmidt: I know he did a lot of collaborative work with the department eventually. What area? There was John Pendleton; he was in soils.
Young: He didn't come over and Dr. Kipps worked in crops. There was somebody else. Well, Howard Massey was in horticulture. There was Maynard Hale in plant pathology. Now Dr. Engel brought Dr. Ackerman with him from Alabama.
Schmidt: I wondered how Dr. Ackerman joined the faculty.
Young: He brought Dr. Ackerman in by plane to the campus for his interview.
Schmidt: So all these new people, how were they housed, where were they housed?
Young: Well in Smyth Hall. Some of them still had their offices back in the original locations and they went back and forth.
Schmidt: I remember Dr. King had his office in the biology building, Price Hall, initially on the top floor.
Young: With Ed Moore, and they were quite famous, developing systems. They were interested in ruminant development.
Schmidt: Seemed like there was a thrust in the department's early years, in ruminant nutrition, biochemistry, and microbiology. Everyone seemed to have a little aspect, well not everyone, but a lot of them had an aspect of that.
Young: They had me develop a column for separating amino acids for Ed Moore. I had about a two gallon jar of it, which I used to develop the work, fantastic! For five years they used this one source of column packing for all their amino acid analyses.
Schmidt: That's amazing.
Young: And then of course, when the column packing was used up, there was difficulty reproducing separations with new column packing.
Schmidt: That's often the way with columns.
Young: It was fantastic to separate all your various amino acids, but we never could quite get back where we did the first time
Schmidt: Superb packing, I guess, the first time. Now the Department of Biochemistry and Nutrition, its name, was there any controversy about what it should be named?
Young: Well, they decided we should name it biochemistry instead of agriculture chemistry because it was updating. Then nutrition, Dr.Engel was very strong in nutrition. He also had research projects we were working on which is now quite popular, radiation of foods. We had a series of dogs that were fed irradiated foods in nutrition experiments. One was irradiated shrimp, one was carrots, and a couple of others.
Schmidt: Wasn't that a big contract from the Army or something like that?
Young: Yes, it was a big contract from the Army, whether they could successfully irradiate foods for keeping quality, which proved to be correct.
Schmidt: I noticed back then they showed it was successful but to this day very little radiation is being done.
Young: The radiation doesn't hurt.
Schmidt: No, it doesn't hurt the food.
Young: The food for humans to eat is safe.
Schmidt: The people still have a fear.
Young: A fear of it, but they shouldn't.
Schmidt: No they shouldn't. So, it must have been pretty crowded as Dr. Engel brought in new people into Smyth Hall there.
Young: Well, when I was going over to work with Ken King and Ed Moore that sort of provided some relief. Nelson Price and others were in the basement of Price Hall, the first floor; then they moved them to Smyth when they added an addition onto Smyth, that wing in the back.
Schmidt: Oh yes.
Young: And that's when they moved over to the back addition.
Schmidt: I've forgotten about that wing in the back.
Young: It wasn't there first, that was added on.
Schmidt: So that was to help with space for this department. Was Juel Albert working with Nelson?
Young: Yes, he worked for Nelson Price. Albert ran the protein, fat, carbohydrate, minerals, and food fiber (proximal analysis). Samples came in from the farming groups and extension agents.
Schmidt: Now the department had a strong research component and a strong service component looks like, when did its teaching program really get started? Or did that get started right from the beginning?
Young: It started when Dr. Engel came. All we had before was the proximal analysis lab which they needed for me to run samples. I would like to mention this. A couple months ago I was in Roanoke near the outside limits buying some vegetables at the fruit place towards Troutville. This gentleman came up and wanted to know who I was. "Oh I know who you are, don't say anything, I'll tell you. You're Roddy Young of Virginia Tech." I said "yes." He said "don't say anything, you're in biochemistry right?" I said "yes," and he said, of course, I'm sure you don't remember me because I gained a few pounds and I do have white hair which I didn't have before; I was in your lab class."
Schmidt: Oh, for heaven's sake.
Young: And he said, "The way you taught, insisted that you get the material one way or another. You repeated it more than once. I went to medical school and, with the way you developed how to do our analyses, I was able to successfully get through medical school."
Schmidt: Wow, that's impressive!
Young: I also have two cousins who were also in our lab the next year, they also are now MD's, one in Roanoke, from Johns Hopkins; the other from University of Virginia Medical School.
Schmidt: That's very rewarding when former students come back and tell you that a lot of their success has depended on what you have given them, guidance you've given them; that's great.
Young: Another one said, "we only had two good professors that were on campus, you and Dr. Moore, Ed Moore."
Schmidt: You both were good.
Young: He was fabulous. He (former student) said "The two of you gave us what we needed to complete medical school." It's all flabbergasting!
Schmidt: Yes, professors can have a major impact on their students. I remember as an undergraduate I heard that there was this new faculty member on campus in biology, in biochemistry. It was just great that you could go and sit in those classes. He taught cell biology and they said he was terrific and suggested I go and sit in on the class because I was interested in that area. So I went and sat in; it was Dr. King, Kendall King and he was fabulous as probably one of the best teachers I'd ever heard, just sitting in and listening.
Finally one day he said "Bob Schmidt that's your name isn't it?" I had never been introduced to him and he said, "You're interested in science?" I said yes, he said, "How about coming into my lab and working on an undergraduate research project." That's how I got introduced to all this, but go on, I shouldn't be interjecting my comments because you're the man of the day here.
So where were we? We have talked about the joint appointments and how the teaching program got going. I was interested in how that got going, did it start with undergraduate teaching first and then go to graduate education, or did it just sort of all happen at once?
Young: Well, we immediately established a Master of Science degree program and I think the Ph.D. came in right along with it. They said that we wouldn't be able to go anywhere, if we did not have it.
Schmidt: Dean Dietrich, I guess, was the Dean of Agriculture at that time. He must have played some role in stimulating the education, the academic part of the program.
Young: I remember one time Dean Dietrich and my father were talking and indicated,"You take on the research team and I will take on the rest of it. They are your people so you better pick somebody good. Whatever you say goes." President Newman also agreed when we were chatting in our backyard. They came to our backyard and did their chatting with no telephones, no secretaries.
Schmidt: I guess that's the way you have to, if you want to keep things close to the chest you have to do things privately like that. Now it's going down in history here as to how all these things kept going. Where did Dan Lane come from, just out of curiosity?
Young: Apparently, Dr. Engel brought him in.
Schmidt: Ok, he came in from Illinois I know.
Young: He was very good to work with; he had a fantastic program.
Schmidt: He was in the animal biochemistry area and became very famous in that area.
Young: He (Dan Lane) was astounded at the area's treatment of people other than white people. He provided the chance for a better relationship in the black area in town but many black people were cautious. They thought, if we dared do anything, they'll leave us like the barber's lost customers. We don't really dare to respond to those trying to help us.
Schmidt: Those were touchy times back then.
Young: And now we had in our department the first black person on campus, she was female, from NYU.
Schmidt: She was a student?
Young: Yes, she had to finish her research program. The equipment she was using, the amino acid analyzer, had broken down at NYU. Apparently she was a student of Dr. King's father. So we had this black lady, very lovely lady, from NYU.
Schmidt: Yes, I think that's where his dad was. His dad I think was Charles King?
Young: He is the one who founded vitamin C.
Schmidt: Yes, worked a lot on vitamin C.
Young: He's the one who brought up, made vitamin C famous. Anyway, we considered her a visitor to the campus. When persons asked, "Who's that up there in Price Hall? What is she doing?" They were flabbergasted a black person was on campus. Well she was a visitor from another university and that way we were able to keep her. Finally, the President of Tech found out and said she was a very lovely lady, very well educated and able to handle herself very well. She kept a low profile but she went to seminars. The audience had become accustomed to her and found out she was very knowledgeable.
Schmidt: I see. I was on campus at that time, I was an undergraduate but I don't remember.
Schmidt: Now, so you taught the analytical biochemistry laboratory course.
Young: The laboratory course, until Dr. Engel came.
Schmidt: Then you became involved in the pesticide program.
Young: Well, Dr. Engel had the problem that they were trying to control nematodes in the peanut area in eastern Virginia. We worked with Dow Chemicals, so he said, "Here is a project for you." We had the dairy group in eastern Virginia give us some animals, a farm in fact, we could feed them the peanuts treated with ethylene dibromide (then used to control the nematodes in peanuts) and see what came out in the milk.
Peanuts had gone from a crawling vine to an upright type of peanut production, which they were going to use for hay. They found out that the control animals also had as much bromine as the animals eating the hay from peanuts treated with dibromide. That raised a question. So they took samples and sent to Michigan, to Dow Chemical, and they confirmed our results.
Well then we discovered that, from further testing, the milk from cows in the area which had no ethylene bromine added to the food also had high levels of bromine in the milk. With Dr. Engel's assistance, we were able to establish a value of 100 parts per million of bromine in milk. We discovered about 40 miles inland from the sea coast we got samples from different areas and the bromine was in the milk. Nobody was dying of bromine poisoning, so the FDA allowed bromine in milk.
Schmidt: So the bromine was left over from the ocean having receded enough behind?
Young: Well they discovered it was usually ocean spray.
Schmidt: Ocean spray, I guess years ago?
Young: When there was a big storm, they discovered that the bromine levels went up.
Schmidt: Oh, it got carried in the air by the wind.
Young: Yes, it got on the crops even when there was no storm, the bromine levels were the same. But every time there was a big storm when the water would be close to the coast.
Schmidt: 40 miles in?
Young: Yes. They discovered the bromine level went up dramatically. It was on the crops that they were eating.
Schmidt: That's really interesting to know.
Young: Bromine, we also discovered later, by looking at different crops they used for nutrition for children, that carrots brought in from California had hundred parts per million to thousand parts per million of bromine in the carrots from the Imperial Valley. They'd been eating those for a long time, the food had no harmful effects so we were able to establish a tolerance level.
Schmidt: Very good. After your success with this project, I guess then you were asked to do more of this type of work
Young: Then, persons asked, "why don't you take care of other problems?" So that's how I got to take care of many problems for the poultry industry and the animal industry.
Schmidt: I can remember back when I was a faculty member here, some of the poultry industry had problems with contamination. I cannot remember the name of the compound.
Young: They discovered polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were in the turkey that came from Virginia and fed to the children in Mississippi and Alabama. It was in school lunches. That was horrible, "Horrible," they said. So where did the PCBs come from? Tracing back to the mesh wrapping that was on the turkeys is where the PCB came from. We traced the cotton mesh back to Minnesota, where the big company made all that mesh for all the meats. All theirs was loaded with PCBs.
Then we traced where the cotton came from. It came from Mexico, where they used PCBs to control molds and so forth in storage of cotton. Because humid climate in Mexico tended to form a lot of mold and PCBs would kill the mold. And so we went back to where it came from.
Another problem existed; the turkey industry had 3.5 million turkeys for sale and the level of the PCBs was I think 300-400 parts per million. We can't sell the turkeys so where did this come from? We started looking at all the feed ingredients and found out the fish meal was used as the protein source in the poultry feeds was loaded with PCB's. They traced that back to the fish processors cooling system. When the fish are better, the better fish are kept for human consumption, the rest are turned over for animal consumption for protein value.
I should say to keep the fish from smelling after they go through the system, the fish were sprayed with a coolant, which immediately freezes. There was residue. Well, they discovered that somebody had six barrels of PCBs and something used in the cooling system for it to last a year. Three months had gone by and there was only one barrel left, so they started looking and found out that there was a hole in the system of the cooling apparatus they had which was squirting almost pure PCBs into the coolant.
Turkey growers started feeding the turkeys another source feed and were able to lower the level of PCB's in the turkey farms so they didn't lose their 3.5 million turkeys they were trying to sell. We missed two months so we lowered that so we saved the turkey industry from disaster that year.
VT History Digital Library and Archives Special Collections University Archives Send questions or comments to:
Tamara Kennelly, University Archivist, University Libraries
Virginia Tech, P.O. Box 90001, Blacksburg, VA 24062-9001
Last Updated on: Tuesday, 08-Apr-2003 16:15:00 EDT by Mark B. Gerus
Original page design by Mark B. Gerus