Fifty-Year Celebration of the Department of Biochemistry
University Archives / University Libraries / Department of Biochemistry

Interview by Warren H. Strother - Context, Vol. 10, No. 2, Winter 1976

Strother is director of Virginia Tech's Division of Information Services.

Kendall W. King left the Virginia Tech faculty seven years ago to join Research Corporation in New York and to take advantage of an opportunity that very much appealed to him. Despite its name, Research Corporation is not a business and it does not conduct research; it is a private foundation dedicated to the advancement of science. One of its activities, the Williams-Waterman Program, for many years has sought to advance the cause of human nutrition. The new affiliation was natural for Dr. King, since he had become absorbed in the subject of human nutrition-and particularly malnutrition.

During his final years at Blacksburg King had served as head of the biochemistry and nutrition department, working under Dr. Reuben W. Engel, then associate dean of agriculture, and Dr. Wilson B. Bell, who at that time was dean of agriculture. Engel himself left Blacksburg shortly after King's departure to go to the Philippines and head the Virginia Tech-U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) effort in Manila to combat malnutrition in that country. Bell moved across campus in 1968 to become the University's director of development. The Bell-Engel-King team at Tech was as unusual a group of scientists as one could find on any university campus, whether involved with human nutrition or anything else. And for Kendall King, the long association with his two colleagues had a profound influence on his professional perspective, one which remains meaningful to him to this day. It is an association which is by no means ended.

In any event, in the late 1950s King first came face to face with the raw reality of severe malnutrition in Haiti, when he volunteered to serve on a nutrition survey team in an investigation of the nutritional status of the Haitian people. Writing about it a decade later (CONTEXT, Winter, 1967), he recalled that his first-hand realization of the ravages of extreme poverty on the Haitian population was something of a shock. "I am convinced that the greatest challenge to contemporary science and technology lies in bringing our know-how to grips with the crucial social problems of our time," he wrote. The grim symbol of his initial Haitian experience was the indelible memory of the tiny coffins, one after another, bearing small Haitian children who had died of malnutrition. King had spent a year in Haiti in 1959-60 on leave to Columbia University as a research associate, seeking somehow to come to grips with the problem of keeping children alive amid the grinding poverty in which they lived. Out of it came his association with Research Corporation and his later work with Haitian malnutrition at Virginia Tech.

Years of research work on the problem-funded by the Williams-Waterman Program-ultimately resulted in the development of a simple, inexpensive, and nutritionally balanced food which Haitian mothers could feed their families at a cost of about 45 cents per day for a family of five. It largely consisted of a blend of locally grown beans and cereals (rice, corn, or sorghum). The laboratory work necessary to develop the food was done at Blacksburg, but in the harsh social realities of Haiti in the 1950's and 1960's the translation of the laboratory know-how into a viable nutrition program in Haiti was an even more difficult task. Almost universal illiteracy made conventional extension teaching methods meaningless; the Haitian mothers could not read. Simple necessity ultimately developed an answer: working with the Departments of Health and Agriculture in Haiti, the researchers organized what they called "Mothercraft Centers" under the direction of girls with less than a high school education. Mothers of the severely malnourished children were taught, through day-by-day oral instruction as they worked at the centers, how to prepare the lifesaving food. After four months of instruction, a new group of mothers and children were moved in, and the cycle continued.

The results were dramatic; the starving, emaciated youngsters began to move toward normal body weights very quickly using the bean cereal blend for feeding infants from the weaning period on. And at the same time through the agricultural extension programs in Haiti, others began to work with the fathers in the villages, to try to improve their earning capacity. The statistical data on the program accumulate, year by year, and not many people pay much attention. "But now," King asserts, "we are at the point where we can and are saying to the world that you can protect a child for life from severe malnutrition for less than $7. The cost is something like 12 cents a day per child. It's something to think about when you know the cost of a bushel of wheat and how quickly it is used up, leaving children to starve again."

Initially, the "mothercraft center" idea was the basis upon which Engel began the USAID contract work in the Philippines. Out of it has come the development of a high protein coconut flour to strengthen the nutrition levels of the Philippine population. But in a society where most of the population has more education and the villages are more highly organized, the Philippine program long since has expanded into a much more highly sophisticated effort. It has been cited as one of the most successful Agency for International Development aid programs in the world. But King's primary interests remain in the western hemisphere, where the Williams-Waterman Program makes available about a million dollars a year to individuals and organizations seeking practical means to improve human nutrition. King travels extensively, "looking for good people who can help." It doesn't make much difference who they are, he said; "what I am looking for is motivation, someone who has a good idea about how he can attack the nutrition problem in his own country and who has a plan to accomplish what he wants to do. If he has a convincing plan and the motivation to make it work, then we try to help."

The work in Haiti initially begun by King still is important and still difficult. Progress has been slow because of the unbelievable poverty of the island. Dr. Ryland E. Webb, head of Tech's department of human nutrition and foods, and others at Blacksburg continue to move ahead with broader elements of the problem, seeking to adapt the American extension idea to the improvement of the economy of the Haitian backcountry.

In New York recently King took time to look back at Virginia Tech-to articulate his present-day perspective of the land-grant university with which he was associated for more than 25 years. The University has been a large part of Kendall King's life: as a student, an alumnus, a professor, department head, and now as a professional with only occasional Tech contact. His is a fascinating perspective.

King is a native of Pittsburgh; his father, Charles G. King, is a widely respected chemist. Young Kendall King came first to Virginia Tech as an Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP) student during World War II after he had been drafted for military service. Earlier he had attended Cornell University for a year, majoring in physics. During his ASTP assignment at Tech he concentrated on electrical engineering. But as the war ended, with it ended King's interest in engineering. (With his year-long intensive ASTP courses, plus the work at Cornell, he was but one quarter shy of his electrical engineering degree when he first left Virginia Tech.) But he had developed an interest in agriculture while at Blacksburg and also a warmly romantic interest in one of the few co-eds then on campus, Miss Kathleen Abbitt, daughter of Russell Abbitt, Tech's late director of buildings and grounds. There were dreams of studying agriculture and becoming a homesteader on the West Coast islands south of Alaska, growing strawberries. Anyway King came back to Tech from New York on a bicycle after his Army discharge, spent a summer working on a general farm at Riner, near Blacksburg, and set out both to obtain a degree in agriculture and to win the heart of Kathie Abbitt. Kathie and Kendall King were married in 1947; meanwhile the young lady, a general science student a year or two ahead of King in school, had stumbled into some biochemistry courses which she had taken as electives. Her new-found interest in biochemistry proved contagious, for she persuaded King to look into some of the biochemistry courses Prof. Fred Orcutt then was teaching. Almost without realizing it, King suddenly found what it was at Tech that really interested him. "Fred just swept me off my feet-brilliant lectures, crisp, tightly organized, no nonsense, absolutely fascinating," King recalled. "It wasn't long before I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life." So he changed majors again; when he was graduated in biochemistry in 1949 he had accumulated almost enough credits for two B.S. degrees. He took his master's degree in biochemistry a year later, and by 1952 he had been awarded his Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Wisconsin, concentrating in plant biochemistry. He returned to Virginia Tech as an assistant professor of biochemistry in 1953.

At about the same time Engel, a biochemist-nutritionist of national reputation, had moved to Virginia Tech from Auburn University. Engel soon was putting together a strong department of biochemistry and nutrition, built upon the foundations of the old agricultural chemistry department-a non-degree granting service department. These were the years in which Kendall King learned what a land-grant university is all about. "It was where my academic education really began" he recalled. "When I came back to VPI I said there were two things with which I never wanted to be involved. One was extension work and the other was the work of the Agricultural Experiment Station. Over the next five or six years my whole thinking about biochemistry was completely re-oriented, simply by being in the land-grant environment. The key is service, service to whatever state your land-grant institution is serving. I was absolutely amazed at the capacity of men like "Charlie" Engel and Wilson Bell to deal with classical questions of science on one hand and on the other to tackle the very practical field questions which were troubling Virginia agriculture, such as the X-disease problem in cattle, the chronic disease problems of the poultry industry, bone fragility in horses, or the quite radical approach to farm forage production which Prof. Roy Blazer pioneered. Many of the faculty had an extraordinary quality of having very broad bases in the fundamental sciences, along with an outstanding capacity for analytical thought. One of the greatest things which stand out in my mind, looking back, is the informal animal science conferences which were developed under Engel's leadership - a real knock-down-drag-out series. largely involving faculty dealing with both fundamental research and practical problem solving - problems growing out of Virginia agriculture. The series probably did more for my thinking about both science and academics than all of my previous education put together."

next >>

Articles / An Interview with Kendall King / I_II_III_IV_V