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 Three

Schmidt: I know that your unit, your pesticide program, saved a lot of money for the state and was very well known. I know Dr. Engel's philosophy was to have the department serve not only the College of Agriculture but also the State. Your program played a central role in that. So you started out I guess by yourself, initially, in the pesticide program, and then you added technicians.

Young: Even when we started adding the technicians, we couldn't get all this work done. We'd go hire some extra help.

Schmidt: How big did your group get? I remember it was really quite big at one time.

Young: Yes we had, I think, as many as ten students working. Another problem happened when they found Kepone in the James River. The company in Hopewell that made the Kepone to be shipped overseas, most of it. They used it for controlling pests. The costs for producing the Kepone was entirely supported by the Allied Chemical Company. They paid for all the ingredients to make Kepone and there was no charge to the manufacturer who made it. Therefore, if the quality wasn't right, what they called quality, they dumped it in a landfill.

Schmidt: Into the James River?

Young: Outside of Hopewell, the rain would wash it into the river.

Schmidt: Oh, I see.

Young: It was something like 30 tons washed into the landfill next to the river before they discovered it.

Schmidt: I remember you couldn't eat any fish that came out of that area. And that's a long persisting compound isn't it?

Young: It will break down eventually; it takes about ten/twenty years. The people decided the rains and floods were making the river shallow, we got to dredge it out. Everytime they tried, they picked up more Kepone in the drinking water. The dredging stirred up the Kepone, so the thought was to make a canal around the area, but never did it.

Anyway, it will slowly break down. We found certain microorganisms had the power to actually break down Kepone over a period of years. They encouraged us not to use them.

We worked with wildlife, with animals along the river to determine if they were contaminated: raccoons from eating fish, that sort of thing.

Then we discovered the oysters apparently grow well in contaminated water, in the James River. They are taken normally and put in the York River, the Rappahanock River, the Potomac River and let them grow up to good size oysters. For that period over about six months the oysters actually grew normally. They regrew their tissues in the shell except the nervous system and the digestive system. They regrew the edible parts and then the oysters were clean.

We were asked to report by Christmas, if the oyster industry had any hope. They called us wondering if we found any Kepone. I said "No Kepone in the oysters." They asked "Can we sell them?" I said, "No you have to go through the health department. If they say you can release it, you can."

Schmidt: Yes, you were only advisory, I guess.

Young: They didn't go through the health department. They printed it in the Richmond Times Dispatch the next morning. The next morning at five o'clock in the morning the President of Tech got a call from the Governor himself saying "You embarrassed my office. We just said there was Kepone in the oysters and you say there's no Kepone in the oysters. We are embarrassed and we want somebody's head." [laughter] So anyway I got on the phone and talked to the Governor told him what had happened. He put me on the Kepone board then. So you know what to say and when not to say something.

Schmidt: That's good.

Young: That stopped my head from being chopped. The Governor and my father worked close enough together that my father was able to convince the Governor.

Schmidt: Which governor was that? Godwin?

Young: Governor Mills Godwin.

Schmidt: Thank goodness for that decision. Didn't you in recent years develop some kind of a composting system?

Young: We developed a composting procedure where you can actually get rid of the pesticide itself by composting. The "compost team" included Don Mullins (Entomology), Glenn Hetzel (Biosystems Engineering), and Duane Berry (Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences). We had several changes and protocol developments through the years. We put the contaminated material in pits at first and then we did discover you have to have a mineral source, and an energy source.

Schmidt: And air probably, good air circulation?

Young: Yes, so we would mix the waste material with the pesticide in it with cornmeal, a mineral mix, and fertilizer. The carbohydrate was cornmeal; then, of course, fertilizer for the minerals. Oh yes, you have to have a certain percent of fat, we could take fat like from MacDonald's waste.

Schmidt: That's to make the pesticide soluble, I guess, or something.

Young: Yes, we would use ten percent of lime to break the emulsions or it wouldn't break up, it would sit there, it wouldn't break down. And then you have to have about 65% moisture and through this process, the breakdown occurs.

Schmidt: I was at the University of Florida and you stopped in to visit me one time and told me about this process, and I was very intrigued by it.

Young: Ultimately the ground composting was given up and replaced by a six foot cube above ground called the "bird cage." The composting mixture was placed in the wire cages.

The flow of air adequately controlled heat accumulation. The peanut hulls already have 10% fat. Of course you needed the cornmeal as the energy source and with the minerals after about six weeks all of the pesticide was broken down.

Schmidt: Wow. Yes, I was very impressed with that and passed that on to the people of University of Florida and told them what you were doing. I don't know if you ever heard from them or not, but I was really interested.

Young: Well they were supposed to set up a program with them.

Schmidt: Because with the sandy soil they have down there they have a hard time with pesticides.

Young: In areas of low organic matter, it remains difficult to breakdown the organic pesticides.

Another thing we discovered, in Northern Virginia where the apple production requires large amounts of pesticide there was a positive effect of the organic material in the orchid soils. At a new research farm outside of Winchester, for 25 miles you find no pesticides used on orchards leaching into the wells. Their system of mulch on the surface apparently catches the pesticide before it gets down in the soil and it breaks down.

Schmidt: Natural composting?

Young: Natural composting; and the only thing we found in the well of the new station was herbicide that was used on corn 20 miles away. Their ground water was part of the same ground water stream in that area. We had trouble near Bristol, large amounts of pesticide in springs used to water the whole area. We found that people were dumping their apple waste sprays in sinkholes in Tennessee. The residues appeared in the ground water 35 miles away in the big springs in Virginia and coming out in high concentrations.

Schmidt: I just wonder now that you're Professor Emeritus and we have this group of three technicians still working, is this group going to continue in the future? What's the future for this group?

Young: Well I've found I'm not at liberty to say what it is. Perhaps the money will be released to hire new leadership for the lab in the future.

Schmidt: Well I am glad to see that the program will be continuing. It has been active from the very beginning or had it been a couple of years after Dr. Engel's arrival?

Young: Well three or four years after that.

Schmidt: Ok, so the department was officially established in was it '52 or '53?

Young: Yes, when Engel arrived.

Schmidt: In '54, I took an undergraduate course in biochemistry from Dr. Chick Wisman when he was a member of the department. I remember and he was saying I should have taken the one that Dr. Engel taught but I enjoyed the one that I had with Chick Wisman very much.

Young: And Dr. Engel was very very good. Every time, every lecture he had found something in the newspaper connected with nutrition. He brought that article to class to show what was really happening. So you could remember what he was saying about the news articles not just memory from the textbook.

Schmidt: I was impressed that here he was a department head, he was teaching, he was directing research projects and was active at the national level in all these federal agencies and reviewing the manuscripts and that was truly amazing what he was doing at that time. What about the department as it got going? We talked about sort of how it developed but what was the spirit in the department? How did people feel?

Young: Well always with enthusiasm.

Schmidt: Of course Dr. Engel was a native of Wisconsin, I guess, and got his Ph.D. there. So what have we left to cover? I remember we moved into the new building, the plant composition analysis lab still was there in the building when Nelson Price and Juel Albert were analyzing feeds and plant materials and making recommendations. Of course you had a major lab in the new building. Then the department really began to grow as we got in the new building with additional space.

Young: We had more faculty.

Schmidt: And I joined the faculty in 1961.

Young: You worked with algae.

Schmidt: Yes, I was brought in as the plant biochemist. I taught a course in plant biochemistry, which the college wanted very much. I was a graduate student when I came into the department. They were a little reluctant to bring me in because I was working in the plant area, using algae. Dr. Engel said their focus in the department was ruminant biochemistry microbiology. They were willing to let me come and work on the biochemistry of the algae if I also worked on the project in microbiology, ruminant microbiology. I worked on isolating enzymes that digest cellulose, those cellulases that were bound on the cell wall of the bacteria found in the rumen. About that time, Dr. Engel received a large donation from an anonymous donor. Then Herb Windmuller and I were given the first scholarships from that fund and then they said, "Bob you can focus your full attention on the biochemistry of the algae and no longer have to work on two projects at one time.".

Young: Wow!

Schmidt: That's how that happened. I was very pleased and appreciative of having that opportunity. I interacted with a lot of the other departments when I was a graduate student. I helped them with their plant biochemistry type problems. By the time I was graduating, they felt that maybe there was a need for someone in that area. I was hired temporarily, and then eventually the other departments said we'd really like to have someone like Bob. I was hired and left 20 years later to go to University of Florida in the area of plant biotechnology and microbiology.

Young: That's how you got hired.

Schmidt: Yes, I would have stayed here, I didn't want to leave Tech, but the University of Florida already had a real strong program in molecular biology and biotechnology. They convinced me I should come down there and be the Chairman of the Department of Microbiology and sort of spearhead this plant area too. So I very reluctantly left VPI. When I retired, as you know, I'm back here enjoying this University (Virginia Tech) sort of indirectly now interviewing you and others and going to seminars in the department.

So what else can we talk about? I know Dr. Engel is going to be talking in another interview about what transpired after he was here. We really wanted you to be able to give us some background into the early history.

Young: When Engel arrived in town my folks were out of town. I was elected to go pick him up at the hotel downtown and take him to the agriculture picnic, down by the duck pond. I remember Mrs. Engel entered the rolling pin contest. She won that, throwing the rolling pin. I forgot, Dr. Engel did something. [laughter] By the time all this occurred my folks arrived back from Richmond and then they took over, but I had the opportunity to take the Engels to the picnic and pick them up and start introducing them and so I was an assistant helper when they first came.

Schmidt: It must have impressed him to go to the picnic because for years in the Biochemistry Department we used to have a picnic. Remember an annual picnic down by the duck pond? In front of the amphitheater and students and faculty would all get down there and it was a real nice time we had.

Young: Then they also would take us to a camp over by the lake.

Schmidt: That's right.

Young: He had a camp over by Claytor Lake.

Schmidt: He had a cabin I guess he rented?

Young: He rented the cabin and he had a boat.

Schmidt: He tried to encourage everyone to go to the biochemistry meetings at Atlantic City.

Young: He found out I could drive all right, so I was elected to take a group of Radford students to the meetings. Get them there and get them home.

Schmidt: I know for all the graduate students a faculty member was at least in charge of driving a group of students. I went when I was a student and then I went later as a faculty member and driving as a faculty member. Dr. Engel used to rent a suite. Remember this hotel suite that he rented? He would have all the alumni and the faculty and students, present faculty, and students we'd all gather together and have snacks and things and visit. That was something that, when I became a chair, I carried it on because I was very impressed.

Young: Mrs. Engel actually became head of the women's section of the American Chemical Society (ACS) before Dr. Engel. [laughter]

Schmidt: Yes, she was quite active.

Young: Very much so.

Schmidt: And the community here in town, the women's club and all sorts of things.

Young: Also there was newcomers. The Engels had the first department holiday get-together at their house and invited everybody.

Schmidt: I remember one after the new building was built, we went there on Christmas, for a Christmas party and he handed out stationery to all of us that had the picture of the new building on the stationery and envelopes, do you remember that?

Young: Yes I got some left.

Schmidt: Yes, I used it for years very sparingly because I was very impressed with it. I don't know much about what went into generating the funds to build the new building.

Young: Well Dr. Engel was able to get, through his connections, at least half the money to pay for the building.

Schmidt: I remember that aspect but I don't remember how they did it.

Young: Some nutrition group out of Wisconsin.

Schmidt: I know the NIH matched some money and then the state matched, it was some kind of a growing type of thing, the state was willing to back half, if he could generate half and so on.

Young: He was able to. When we had the building dedication he had a fabulous group of top nutritionists, famous folk.

Schmidt: I remember that.

Young: Dr. Engel mentioned the name of the group. I do have the pictures that we probably might want.

Schmidt: John Hess had pictures and he was asking me to identify some of these people. You know, I recognized their faces and I couldn't remember. These were the outstanding people that came in for the dedication. You'd probably recognize some, of course Dr. Engel too.

Young: He would know them. I took pictures and I gave them some of their pictures.

Schmidt: Maybe these are the ones that you took?

Young: Might have been the ones.

Schmidt: I was very impressed because all of the professors, visitors as well as the ones on our campus were all in suits. Back in those days everyone wore suits and ties and white shirts and all that.

Young: Yes, nobody was under dressed. It was the thing to do.

Schmidt: Yes that's right.

Young: And you went to class with a tie on.

Schmidt: Yes I remember wearing a suit many times to class and a tie.

Young: Now it's a rare thing. Another thing, Dr. Engel always worked very closely with other departments.

Young: We forgot something important. Dr. Engel always working very closely with other departments.

Schmidt: That was very impressive the way he did that.

Young: He was able to; he had enough background to convince many people out in the state. We had the animal industry and the dairy nutrition groups national meetings here because he was the one who wanted to have them at Tech, and usually met at Hotel Roanoke. He was always a key speaker at least in one of the sessions, when the meeting was here.

Schmidt: Yes, I remember the big training grant that we had in the department for training graduate students. We were told near the end of it, I think I may have been serving as acting head at that time. The review panel came through at the last time and they said that the reason we had originally received the grant was not only because we had qualified faculty but because of the prestige of Dr. Engel in the nutrition area. They said that you should know that and without him in the Department you know there's a real big gap that you will have here.

Young: One of our persons in Burruss Hall had problems occasionally with Dr. Engel, but I still feel that Dr. Engel was proper.

Young: They wanted things done their way and Dr. Engel decided to do something else.

Schmidt: When Dr. Engel left the department and became Associate Dean of the College of Agriculture, I was sad to see him leave. Then eventually he left totally to commit himself to international nutrition and that was a gain for that program but certainly a loss for us.

Schmidt: I certainly thank you Roddy for your bringing back the history, the early history of the department. It's been fun for me too and hearing about this. The tapes will be transcribed. I think our recollections are accurate; if not, they have to realize we are getting up there a little bit in years now [laughter] and memory sometimes failed a little bit. Well Roddy, I guess that brings us to an end on this November 20, 2001.

Young: Oh it's the twentieth today?

Schmidt: Yes, November 20, and this interview is being done in preparation for our fiftieth anniversary of the founding of our department, it would be celebrated I think in April 2003. Hopefully we've added a little bit to that celebration that's going to be held in the future. Thank you a lot

Young: Thank you.

End Tape

Edited: R. Schmidt, J. Hess - 11/06/02
Edited: R. Schmidt, R. Young, J. Hess - 3/07/03



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