Steenbock, Harry

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(b. Charlestown, Wisconsin, 16 August 1886; d. Madison, Wisconsin, 25 December 1967)

agricultural chemistry, biochemistry, nutrition.

Steenbock was the second child of Henry and Christine (Oesan) Steenbock, German-speaking Lutheran farmers in rural Wisconsin. He received his elementary education in a one-room schoolhouse and his high school education in the town of Chilton. In 1948 he married Evelyn Van Donk. Steenbock was an empiricist who had high personal standards and a strong sense of the Protestant work ethic. He and his wife were founders of the Madison Art Foundation and benefactors of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences. Arts, and Letters. Steenbock was a member of numerous scientific societies, including founding member (1928) and fellow (1958) of the American Institute of Nutrition. In 1959 he received the Borden Award in Nutrition.

Steenbock earned his bachelor of science in agriculture in 1908 from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Upon graduating he became an assistant in the department of agricultural chemistry at the University of Wisconsin, then headed by Edwin B. Hart, successor to Stephen M. Babcock. Hart strongly influenced Steenbock, especially through his interest in practical problems. Also influential was Elmer V. McCollum, who had studied with Russell H. Chittenden, Lafayette B. Mendel, and Thomas B. Osborne at Yale before joining the department in 1907. McCollum brought a strongly contrasting theoretical training to Madison. The biological method for food analysis was greatly advanced by the work of the Wisconsin group, which came to include Steenbock.

Steenbock earned his master’s degree in 1910 and his Ph.D. in 1916, both at Madison. In 1912 he worked at Yale with Mendel and in 1913 in Berlin with Carl Neuberg. As a graduate student Steenbock participated in the “single grain ration experiment.” This work arose out of Babcock’s criticism of chemical analysis as an index of nutritional value and his belief that chemical analysis probably failed to reveal important nutritional substances. Babcock suggested formulating chemically identical feeds. Using a mixture of different parts of a single plant (in the case of corm, wheat, and oats) and a composite corn-wheat-oat ration, they found that these chemically identical mixed rations were nutritionally dissimilar. Known chemical methods could not reveal the cause of differences in vigor, appearance, and reproductive capacity of cows fed these rations. This initiated, as Howard Schneider has noted, “a methodological revolution” in the use of animal experimentation in nutrition studies.

Steenbock was appointed assistant professor in the department in 1916, associate professor in 1917, and full professor in 1920. During his career he produced more than 250 scientific papers and supervised the laboratory work of more than 135 graduate students. He was a pioneer of the new field of vitamin research. His series of forty-two papers on “Fat Soluble Vitamine” in the Journal of Biological Chemistry appeared from 1918 to 1934 (“Vitamine” was changed in 1923 to “Vitamins”). At a 1919 meeting of the American Society of Biological Chemists, he noted the correlation between yellow pigmentation in foods and the occurrence of vitamin A. In 1920 he crystallized carotene. The relationship between carotene and vitamin A was later solved through the work of Thomas Moore in England. The economic implications of such research led Steenbock to attempt to safeguard the Wisconsin butter industry from the competition that would be engendered by the possibility of adding vitamin A to margarine.

The fat-soluble vitamin was composed of the growth-promoting vitamin A and antirachitic vitamin D. Steenbock attempted to measure vitamin A and used ultraviolet light as an antirachitic agent. The antirachitic effect could apparently be transferred from animal to animal merely by their occupying the same space. This observation led to experimental irradiation of the feed and to the discovery that ultraviolet light produced the antirachitic agent directly in the food. This phenomenon, discovered independently by Alfred Hess, was announced in 1924 in both Science and Journal of Biological Chemistry. Here, too, Steenbock sought to patent the process. Patents were finally assigned to the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, a nonprofit trust incorporated in 1925 as a result of these events. The Wisconsin response was based in part on related experiences elsewhere with patents for thyroid extract and for insulin.

Steenbock also worked on nutritional anemia, especially on the role of copper in supplementing iron, work announced in 1928 and usually credited to Hart. In addition he studied hemoglobin formation, calcification, the nutritional value of cereals, the mode of action of vitamins A and D, and the nutritional effects of lipids and vitamin E. He became professor of biochemistry in 1938 and professor emeritus in 1956.


I. Original Works. Steenbock’s bibliography, compiled by Howard A. Schneider, is available on microfiche (NAPS document 02175. Microfiche Publications). Important publications include “Physiological Effect on Growth and Reproduction of Rations Balanced from Restricted Sources,” in University of Wisconsin Agricultural Experiment Station Research Bulletin, no. 17 (1911), written with E. B. Hart, E. V. McCollum, and G. C. Humphrey; the “Fat Soluble Vitamine” series in Journal of Biological Chemistry, 35–107 (1918–1934); “The Induction of Growth Promoting and Calcifying Properties in a Ration by Exposure to Light,” in Science, n.s. 60 (1924), 224–225; and “A Review of Certain Researches Relating to the Occurrence and Chemical Nature of Vitamin A,” in Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, 4 (1932), 563–578, Steenbock’s correspondence, research files, and notebooks are held in the Steenbock Memorial Library at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

II. Secondary Literature. Howard A. Schneider’s vivid account of Steenbock’s life and work is in Journal of Nutrition, 103 (1973), 1235–1247. See also E. Neige Todhunter in Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 54 (1969), 432.

Merriley Borell

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