Elvehjem, Conrad Arnold
Elvehjem, Conrad Arnold
(b. McFarland, Wisconsin, 27 May 1901; d. Madison, Wisconsin, 27 July 1962)
Elvehjem, the son of Ole and Christine Lewis Elvehjem, grew up on the family farm and was educated in local schools before entering the University of Wisconsin. He received his B.S. in agricultural chemistry in 1923, the M.S. in 1924, and the Ph.D. in 1927. Upon graduation he became an instructor in agricultural chemistry, rising to the rank of full professor in 1936. In 1944 he became chairman of the department (renamed biochemistry), a position he held until he became the university’s thirteenth president in 1958. From 1946 to 1958 he served as dean of the graduate school.
Elvehjem married Constance Waltz in 1926. They had two children, Peggy Ann and Robert Stuart. He died unexpectedly of a heart attack suffered while at work in the presidential office. His only extended absence from the university was a year (1929–1930) spent at Cambridge University studying catalytic oxidations in the laboratory of F.G. Hopkins as a National Research Council Fellow. Elvehjem was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1942 and to the National Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1953. He received numerous other honors—the Willard Gibbs Medal, the Osborne and Mendel Award, the Nicolas Appert Award, and the Lasker Award—and was a member of numerous national committees.
Elvehjem’s entire scientific career dealt with animal nutrition, particularly the role of trace elements and vitamins. He ranged widely in his interests, yet there was an overall interrelationship in the more than 800 research papers published during his career. His first work, undertaken with E.B. Hart and H. Steenbock, dealt with the influence of light on metabolism of calcium and phosphorus in lactating animals. During the next several years, in association with these same investigators, he studied milk-induced anemia and showed that traces of copper are essential for satisfactory iron uptake in hemoglobin formation. Mineral metabolism in animals remained a matter of primary concern and ultimately included work on the roles of zinc, cobalt, manganese, molybdenum boron, potassium, aluminum, fluorine, and arsenic.
Elvehjem contributed in many ways to the growth of understanding of members of the vitamin B complex. In 1937, after Euler-Chelpin and Otto Warburg showed that Harden’s coenzyme I and related coenzymes contained nicotinic acid, Elvehjem and his associates showed that nicotinic acid cured blacktongue in dogs. Goldberger had shown in 1926 that blacktongue is the canine equivalent of human pellagra, and medical investigators soon showed that nicotinic acid cured pellagra in human beings. Elvhjem’s group showed the vitamin to be present as the amide in active concentrates of the vitamin prepared from liver.
When it later became evident that most cereal grains are like corn in being low in nicotinic acid yet—unlike corn—are protective or curative against pellagra, the reason for the anomaly was sought. The proteins of corn are lower in tryptophan than are those of other cereals, and corn has traditionally been present in human diets everywhere in the world that pellagra is endemic. Elvehjem and his associates showed that tryptophan can serve as a substitute for nicotinic acid in diets low in that vitamin, and other investigators established the metabolic conversion of tryptophan to nicotinic acid.
Elvehjem and his associates carried out studies on biotin, pantothenic acid, para-aminobenzoic acid, folic acid, and inositol as these substances became available in pure form, and helped to clarify their role in the nutrition of many species, particularly rats, chickens, dogs, and monkeys. All of these vitamins were originally recognized in connection with the growth of bacterial species; Elvehjem’s laboratory pioneered in testing their role in the nutrition of higher animals. His laboratory also did extensive work in clarifying the role of intestinal bacteria in the synthesis of various trace nutrients. This work revealed that certain species do not require a dietary source of a particular vitamin, because it is synthesized by their normal intestinal flora. When the normal flora is inhibited by such drugs as sulfaguanidine or succinylsulfathiazole, the animal becomes dependent upon dietary supplements.
Elvehjem’s quiet but forceful, perceptive, hardworking example made him a natural leader as a research director. Many of the eighty-eight students who took the Ph.D. under him went on to make significant contributions to the field. This same intensity of effort in the laboratory was evident in his administrative work. As president of the university he encouraged the growth of research in the humanities and social studies while maintaining the strength of the sciences.
I. Original Works. The archives at the University of Wisconsin have extensive holdings of Elvehjem’s papers: the material associated with his presidency in the presidential papers, that with his deanship in the graduate school papers, that with his research and instruction in the papers of the biochemistry department. More than a third of his research papers were published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry. Other journals containing numerous papers are Journal of Nutrition, American Journal of Physiology, and Proceedings of the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine. There is no published bibliography of his works other than the incomplete one in Poggendorff and the listings in the author indexes of Chemical Abstracts. The University of Wisconsin biochemistry department holds a bound set of his collected works.
The principal paper dealing with copper and its role in anemia is “Iron in Nutrition, VII. Copper as a Supplement to Iron for Hemoglobin Building in the Rat,”, in Journal of Biological Chemistry, 77 (1928), 797–812, written with E. B. Hart, H. Steenbock, and J. Waddell; see also “Mineral Metabolism,”, in Annual Review of Biochemistry, 5 (1936), 271–294, written with E. B. Hart: and “The Biological Significance of Copper and Its Relation to Iron Metabolism,” in Physiological Reviews, 15 (1935), 471–507. The curative effect of nicotinic acid for blacktongue in dogs was announced in “Relation of Nicotinic Acid and Nicotinic Acid Amide to Canine Black Tongue,” in Journal of the American Chemical Society, 59 (1937), 1767–1768, and in more detail in “The Isolation and Identification of the Anti-Black Tongue Factor”, in Journal of Biological Chemistry, 123 (1938), 137–147; both articles were written with R. J. Madden, F. M. Strong, and D. W. Woolley. See also “Relation of Nicotinic Acid to Pellagra,” in Physiological Reviews, 20 (1940), 249–271; and “The Biological Significance of Nicotinic Acid,”, in Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine, 16 (1940), 173–189. On the role of tryptophan see two articles written with W. A. Krehl, L. J. Teply, and P. S, sarma: “Growth-Retarding Effect of Corn in Nicotinic Acid-Low Rations and Its Counteraction by Tryptophane”, in Science, 101 (1945), 489–490; and “Factors Affecting the Dietary Niacin and Tryptophane Requirement of the Growing Rat,” in Journal of Nutrition, 31 (1946), 85–106.
The role of Elvehjem and his associates in nutritional research is brought out in several review articles which place the work of his laboratory into perspective with overall activities in the field. See, in addition to those cited above, the following papers: “The water. Soulble Vitamins”, in Journal of the American Medical Association, 120 (1942), 1388–1397; “Recent Advances in Our Knowledge of the Vitamins,” in Scientific Monthly, 56 (1943), 99–104; “Present Status of the Vitamin B Complex,” in American Scientist, 32 (1944), 25–38; and “Recent Progress in Nutrition and Its Relation to Drug Therapy,” in Journal of the American Medical Association, 136 (1948), 915–918.
Elvehjem’s Willard Gibbs Medal address, “Newer Members of the Vitamin B Complex. Their Nutritional Significance,” in Chemical and Engineering News, 21 (1943), 853–857, is somewhat autobiographical, as is “Early Experiences With Niacin—a Retrospect,” in Nutrition Reviews, 11 (1953), 289–292. His education philosophy is reflected in his inaugural address, “Essentials of Progress,” delivered 9 October 1958 (Madison, 1958).
II. Secondary Literature. There are no biographies of Elvehjem other than short journalistic pieces. There are lengthy obituary notices in The Capital Times (Madison, 27 July 1962) and The Milwaukee Journal (27 July 1962); The Wisconsin State Journal (28 July 1962); and Wisconsin Alumnus, 64, no. 1 (1962), 9–12.
Aaron J. Ihde